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Probation statistics show increase in use of force at L.A. County juvenile halls

Probation statistics show increase in use of force at L.A. County juvenile halls
Graffiti on the walls of a cell at Central Juvenile Hall. (Azael "Sal" Martinez)

Use-of-force incidents at Los Angeles County juvenile halls have increased in recent months, but probation officials say it's unclear what's behind the rise.

Overall, monthly use of force incidents increased by 85%, from 55 to 102, at the three county-run juvenile halls — Central Juvenile Hall in Boyle Heights, Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey and Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar — from January to July, statistics released Thursday by the L.A. County Probation Department show.

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At Los Padrinos, the number of reported incidents rose from 12 in January to 31 in July. At Central Juvenile Hall, the number increased from 20 in January to 39 in July; and from 23 to 32 at the Barry J. Nidorf facility.

Each camp holds about 200 youths awaiting court action in their cases or transfer to other facilities.

The total number of force incidents remained relatively stable early in 2016 and dipped slightly in March, but spiked in June and July.

The department did not provide statistics for the same period in the previous year, and the figures provided for this year did not break down the level of force used or give context about the circumstances.

Probation officials who presented the statistics at a probation commission meeting Thursday said any time a staffer places hands on a youth, including to break up a fight between minors, a use-of-force report is triggered.

Department spokeswoman Kerri Webb said there could be "a variety of reasons" for the overall increase.

"While we do regularly review these incidents, we're assessing this specific information to identify the reasons for the fluctuations," she said in an email. "It's too soon to know now what the results of the analysis are."

The department has been under increased scrutiny over use of force in the juvenile facilities since June, when information about an incident at the Sylmar juvenile hall in April became public.

In that incident, video of which was leaked to the blog WitnessLA, four probation officers allegedly pummeled a non-combative 17-year-old probationer. The case was referred to the district attorney's office by the Probation Department.

Earlier this month, the county Board of Supervisors ordered the Probation Department to produce a report on how the agency handles so-called critical incidents.

The board is also exploring setting up an oversight body to monitor the department, and is considering an overhaul that would split the department — which oversees both minors and adult probationers — into two agencies, one tracking the adult population and the other overseeing juveniles.

The number of youths locked up in juvenile halls and camps has decreased substantially over the past decade, but probation officials have noted that as more low-level juvenile offenders have been diverted, the young people who remain tend to be higher-risk.

Cyn Yamashiro, the probation commission member who had asked for the use of force data, said he could not comment on the increase in incidents but hopes that the release of the numbers will signal more information-sharing by the Probation Department.

He and some other commissioners have complained in recent months that the department was slow to share information about the use of force.

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"Today was, I think, the beginning of a larger conversation about two things — one is simply the use of force in detention facilities, and also how that information is collected and distributed," Yamashiro said.

"My hope is that it's going to continue, that we're going to continue to try to figure out why we're having the problems that we're having."

Twitter: @sewella

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