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California

Six guards charged with child abuse, assault over unreasonable use of pepper spray

Female minors detained at the juvenile hall are escorted by a probation officer with their books aft
An officer escorts young women detained at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey in 2016. Six detention officers have been charged with felonies and misdemeanors in connection with their use of pepper spray.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Six Los Angeles County juvenile detention officers were charged with assault and child abuse Friday for using pepper spray on several teenage girls last year.

According to the charges brought by L.A. County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey, the officers assigned to Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall were unreasonable in the way that they used the spray or prevented the detainees from being able to properly clear their skin and eyes of the chemical.

The six officers charged — Marlene Rochelle Wilson, 46; Janeth Vilchez, 48; LaCour Harrison, 53; Claudette Reynolds, 57; Maria Asuzena Guerrero, 28; and Karnesha Marshall, 28 — appeared in court Friday. Each will face arraignment next month.

The charges against the six officers range from felony assault to various misdemeanors, and range from six months in jail to eight years in prison.

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The legal action follows months of controversy in Los Angeles County over the dramatic increase in pepper-spray use by detention officers on young detainees.

The spray, formally known as “oleoresin capsicum” spray, is supposed to be used as a “last resort” to control violent and unruly youths.

But in early February, the county’s Office of Inspector General issued a detailed review of activities inside juvenile halls, documenting potential misconduct by detention officers. It found that guards had inadequate training, supervision and accountability — conditions that contributed to an over-reliance on pepper spray.

The investigators also raised concerns about what they saw as a punitive culture inside the nation’s largest juvenile probation operation, which includes more than 7,000 youths under community supervision and an average of 900 held in halls or camps.

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The Times has reported that the use of pepper spray increased from 294 incidents in 2015 to 747 incidents in 2017 — a jump of 154%. More recent data showed that usage began to level off in 2018.

“In those instances where egregious acts were suspected to have been committed, the department reports that it has removed staff from direct contact with youth and will be taking disciplinary action if appropriate,” according to the report from the Office of the Inspector General.

In late February, the county Board of Supervisors voted to phase out the use of pepper spray by the end of this year.

The county Probation Department, which manages the detention and supervision of the thousands of juveniles involved in the county’s criminal justice system, is rapidly approaching its deadline to devise a plan to stop using the spray, which causes burning and inflammation of the eyes, nose and skin.

“The filing of criminal charges against six probation officers validates the earlier concerns we raised about excessive – and now potentially illegal – use of pepper spray in our juvenile halls and camps,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas said in a statement. “It also underscores the urgent need to safely and responsibly phase out the use of pepper spray, and to implement stronger oversight.”

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said she is worried about detention officers continuing to use pepper spray at all, saying it’s ineffective and destructive to building the kind of relationships necessary to create a rehabilitative environment.

“It totally validates our concern about the use of pepper spray in our halls,” Supervisor Sheila Kuehl said of the charges against the officers. “This kind of egregious behavior has to be charged, and I was not surprised given that these few people had gone beyond what was allowed with pepper spray.”

Wilson and Vilchez were charged with felony counts of assault by a public officer and misdemeanor counts of child abuse. Harrison and Reynolds were charged with assault by a public officer and cruelty to a child by endangering her health, a misdemeanor. Guerrero and Marshall were charged with cruelty to a child by endangering her health.

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Payroll records show that the officers arrested had worked for the department for several years. Harrison, the lone male charged, is a supervising detention officer.

Chief Probation Officer Terri L. McDonald said the investigation at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall was launched by her agency.

“The alleged acts by the individuals charged today in no way reflects on the amazing work done by our staff who have dedicated their careers to helping youth and adults change their lives for the better,” she said in a statement. “What this filing does demonstrate is that the excessive or improper use of force by our staff will be thoroughly and professionally investigated, with involved staff being held accountable for their actions.”

Ian Kysel, a staff attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, said the charges underscore how tools such as pepper spray can be abused — and are an indication that L.A. County’s juvenile halls remain a dangerous environment.

“The Probation Department should take immediate steps to protect youth from the abusive use of chemical agents while it works to implement a countywide ban and enable staff to do so as soon as possible,” he said.

Internal investigations into the officers are ongoing, and the legal cases are being prosecuted by Deputy Dist. Attys. Kaveh Faturechi and Oscar Plascencia, both of whom work for a division in the district attorney’s office focused on justice system integrity.


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