LOS ANGELES – Six Los Angeles County probation officers have been charged in connection with the unlawful use of pepper spray last year against five teenage girls housed at a juvenile hall, the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office announced Friday.
Prosecutors alleged the six — who work as detention services officers — either were unreasonable when using pepper spray or prevented the teens from being decontaminated after they were pepper-sprayed, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
The alleged incidents occurred in 2018, between April 7 and July 21, at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey.
In a statement, Los Angeles County Chief Probation Officer Terri L. McDonald said that the charges stem from a “months-long investigation originated by L.A. County Probation into the unlawful use of force at one of the department’s juvenile halls.”
“As this filing shows, L.A. County Probation has a zero tolerance policy and will not tolerate the improper use of force by staff against any youth in our charge. When we become aware of an allegation of excessive use of force, we prioritize that investigation and refer the case to the D.A.’s office if warranted,” McDonald said in the statement. “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. 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.”
Marlene Rochelle Wilson, 46; Janeth Vilchez, 48; LaCour Harrison, 53; Claudette Reynolds, 57; Maria Asuzena Guerrero, 28; and Karnesha Marshall, 28, are due back in a downtown Los Angeles courtroom for arraignment May 23.
Wilson is charged with five felony counts of assault by a public officer and three misdemeanor counts of child abuse, and could face up to eight years and eight months behind bars.
Vilchez is charged with one count each of assault by a public officer and child abuse, and faces up to four years behind bars if convicted as charged.
Harrison is charged with one count of felony assault by a public officer and two misdemeanor counts of cruelty to a child by endangering her health, and could face up to four years behind bars.
Reynolds is charged with one count each of assault by a public officer and cruelty to a child by endangering her health, and faces up to three-and- a-half years behind bars if convicted as charged.
Guerrero and Marshall are each charged with one count of cruelty to a child by endangering her health, and each could face up to six months in jail.
On Feb. 19, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to eliminate the use of pepper spray in juvenile halls and camps, a change expected to be phased in over at least the next 10 months.
Supervisors Sheila Kuehl and Mark Ridley-Thomas recommended banning the use of oleoresin capsicum spray, commonly known as pepper spray, in favor of more humane behavior management.
“There are alternatives, they are not easy, any more than disciplining your child without hitting them is easy,” Kuehl said. “If we want to teach nonviolence to young people, we have to start with ourselves.’
The board also called for increasing staffing, training and additional oversight of the Probation Department.
The recommendations followed a report by the Office of Inspector General, released Feb. 4, which found abusive and potentially criminal use of OC spray by some probation staffers.
The chemical is banned for use in juvenile facilities in 35 states and California is one of only five states that allow probation officers to carry OC cans at all times, according to the motion.
Though probation officials said the majority of staffers don’t resort to using pepper spray and most of the time it is used in line with policy, the OIG report found some use it as a first line of defense, sometimes escalating non-violent situations. Policy dictates its use as a last resort and only when youth are physically aggressive.
Staff sometimes misreported the use of force, saying youth were aggressive when video surveillance showed otherwise, according to the OIG.
The OIG also reported that staff sometimes failed to decontaminate youth after using the chemical spray, which when sprayed in the eyes brings tears, pain and temporary blindness.
Kuehl described it as “a form of torture” worse than mace and Supervisor Kathryn Barger called it “painful” and “inhumane.”
The OIG report mentioned one child with a mental health condition, who was sprayed in the groin and buttocks when he was found trying to hurt himself. After being sprayed, he was left in a room without running water for about 20 minutes before staff returned to help him.
Juvenile justice advocates told stories of developmentally disabled youth being sprayed multiple times, including a 14-year-old on anti-psychotic medication and subject to seizures who was sprayed four separate times, once because he refused to give up a pen.
Policy prohibits using the spray on youth taking psychotropic medication or who have asthma or are pregnant.
The board directed staffers to develop “a plan for the phased elimination of the use of OC spray in all Los Angeles county camps and halls before the end of calendar year 2019.”
Probation officials said the use of the chemical had increased roughly 200 percent from 2015-17 at Los Padrinos and Barry J. Nidorf juvenile halls and more than 330 percent at Central Juvenile Hall. However, they also reported usage was down 20 percent in 2018 as compared with 2017.
Eliminating its use will require finding solutions for staffers who don’t feel safe in an environment where youth-on-youth assaults were up 66 percent and youth-on-staff assaults were up 58 percent from 2016-17.
Barger said she heard the same message over and over from probation officers working on the front line.
“They do not feel that they are getting support in training,” Barger said, telling Chief Deputy Probation Sheila Mitchell, “The buck stops with you all.”
As the department continues to close juvenile facilities and focus on diversion programs, the concentration of “high needs, high risk” youth in halls and camps has grown.
Many of those youth need mental health care and the board directed the Department of Mental Health to assess those needs over the next 60 days and recommend ways to improve trauma-informed approaches to dealing with juvenile offenders who don’t qualify for diversion programs.
Probation officers and union leaders highlighted the risks they face, including rival gang members eager to attack one another and mentally ill youth subject to drastic mood swings.
“There (are) no consequences for assaulting staff at all,” said Thomas Holland, a probation staffer who said he had once been a ward of a juvenile camp. “Nothing’s working. We’re overwhelmed. We’re working short … we need help and pepper spray needs to stay.”
Hans Liang, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 685, reminded the board of Arnold Garcia, a counselor fatally beaten by a teen at a county detention center in 1994.
A plan for implementing phased elimination is expected back in 60 days.
“None of us wants children or staff hurt as we transition from one tool” to another, Probation Chief Terri McDonald told the board.
The Probation Reform and Implementation Team is set to hold a hearing in March to tackle other safety recommendations laid out in the OIG report, including more cameras, more reporting and more staff training.
Ridley-Thomas expressed frustration with the pace of change in the department, though its leaders stressed that they are committed to a rehabilitative rather than a punitive culture.
“What is it with the Department of Probation that it takes all this effort to make these changes?” Ridley-Thomas asked, later adding, “I’ve grown completely impatient with the claims that `We’re working on it.’ ”