LOS ANGELES – The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to investigate the use of pepper spray in county juvenile halls, while criminal justice advocates called for a ban against using the spray on minors.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas recommended the review, which also aims to address other safety concerns raised by juvenile detainees as well as staffers.
“The need for cooperation and oversight may never have been as vital as it is now,” Ridley-Thomas said, pointing to county data showing a threefold increase in the use of pepper spray from 2015-17. “No department can police itself — outside eyes are essential — and the inspector general has a strong track record in conducting credible, external investigations into matters concerning public safety.”
Chief Deputy Probation Officer Sheila Mitchell, who is responsible for juvenile halls and camps, said the use of the spray had been reduced by 20 percent this year and was “almost non-existent in our camps.”
The 2015-17 data was reported at a March meeting of the Probation Commission, a decades-old advisory board that is set to be transformed into a more powerful watchdog agency.
Ridley-Thomas said the board had “recently learned of what it considers to be more serious pepper spray incidents,” but did not disclose specifics.
Civil rights advocates urged the board to eliminate the use of the chemical spray, which goes by the technical name oleoresin capsicum spray.
“The Board of Supervisors must take the first step,” said Esther Lim of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. “The use of chemical spray eliminates trust between youth and staff.”
Lim alleged that about a dozen minors were sprayed with the chemical when they were discovered trying to harm themselves.
Another criminal justice advocate relayed his personal experience.
“I was pepper sprayed for the first time at age 15 in Central Juvenile Hall, and ultimately pepper sprayed more than 10 times while in the juvenile justice system,” said Kent Mendoza, a policy coordinator with the nonprofit Anti-Recidivism Coalition.
“Chemical spray was dehumanizing and sent a clear message to me and other youth that juvenile hall, and eventually prison, was where we belonged.”
All but three or four California counties use pepper spray in juvenile detention centers, according to Mitchell. She named Santa Clara County, where she served as probation chief before coming to Los Angeles County, as one of the jurisdictions that doesn’t use it.
As the number of juvenile probationers has dropped dramatically over the last several years in response to falling rates of crime and criminal justice reforms, Mitchell said only the toughest teenagers were left in detention.
“Only those kids who pose a serious risk to public safety, a risk of flight, are in our halls,” Mitchell told the board of the roughly 540 minors now housed in juvenile halls. “Our numbers are down … almost by 80 percent … but the kids who are in custody … are the ones that are most challenging to us.”
Supervisor Kathryn Barger said some probation employees told her that the number of assaults against staffers was on the rise but workers are unsure of policies and afraid to take action for fear of being disciplined or fired.
Barger said more training was needed and said she wanted to “make sure that we’re not jeopardizing the welfare of our employees.”
A report from the Office of Inspector General is expected back in 45 days.
Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition was among the voices calling for more robust oversight of the department, including a probation oversight commission with subpoena power and open access to visit juvenile halls and camps without advance notice.
The board voted in May to revamp the Probation Commission and a working group is defining the new commission’s powers and the scope of its oversight.