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L.A. County supervisors to consider phasing out pepper spray in juvenile halls

Female minors detained at the juvenile hall are escorted by a probation officer with their books aft
Girls at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey in 2016. An L.A. County report says staff have engaged in inappropriate and avoidable uses of pepper spray to subdue juvenile detainees.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors is expected to weigh a plan next week to “phase out” the use of pepper spray in its juvenile detention facilities, following recent scrutiny about its excessive use.

The board will consider a motion asking the county’s Probation Department, which handles the supervision and detention of more than 7,000 juveniles involved with the county criminal justice system, to develop a plan to stop using oleoresin capsicum, commonly known as pepper spray.

For the record:
10:55 AM, Feb. 07, 2019 An earlier version of this article said Supervisor Janice Hahn was co-sponsor of a motion to phase out pepper spray in juvenile halls. The motion is sponsored by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas.

The supervisors received a report this week from the county’s Office of Inspector General about inappropriate and avoidable use of the substance to subdue detainees in the county’s juvenile halls and camps.

The review came after the board became alarmed by reports of skyrocketing use of the spray, which can incapacitate people by causing irritation to their eyes and skin. Incidents in which detention officers deployed the spray increased by 150% from 2015 to 2017, for example, data released by the department shows.

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In addition to increased use in violent situations, the inspector general’s report found that officers sometimes used the spray when it wasn’t necessary or out of compliance with the department’s use-of-force rules — and that they on occasion didn’t properly help decontaminate the juveniles.

“It is permitted only to be deployed to the extent that ‘is necessary and appropriate to restore order and/or achieve and maintain control,’ and not as punishment or retaliation,” according to a draft of the motion the supervisors will consider at their weekly meeting on Tuesday. “Unfortunately, the OIG report detailed numerous violations of these policies.”

The motion is sponsored by Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas, who first raised concerns about use of the spray last year, prompting the inspector general’s review.

The report found that juveniles were sprayed in the face, back and buttocks, and were sometimes inadvertently or accidentally sprayed when others violated the rules. In other cases, juveniles were sprayed for excessive periods of time, according to the report and motion.

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Perhaps most troubling, the supervisors said, were reports that detention officers used the spray as a default act of intervention in tense situations, rather than relying on less drastic methods for de-escalation. The report found that the spray was at times used punitively — and that officers sometimes submitted inaccurate reports of aggressive behavior by juveniles that didn’t hold up to later scrutiny of video evidence.

Such reports alarmed board members this week, but they seemed prepared to move cautiously to avoid increasing the danger for guards inside the camps and halls, where probation officials say violence against staff has increased in recent years.

The motion now calls for the “phased elimination” of the spray over time, as the county explores other methods and training for staff to maintain order inside the facilities, which housed on average about 900 juveniles awaiting trial or receiving rehabilitation after criminal convictions in juvenile courts.

Officials from the Probation Department, which cooperated with the review and raised concerns internally about the increase in pepper spray use, were not immediately available for comment.


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