Nearly four years after calling for the elimination of pepper spray at its juvenile halls, a frustrated Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has ordered its Probation Department to develop a plan to phase out its use in select housing units within 45 days while ensuring staffers are trained on other de-escalation techniques.
The board initially voted in February 2019 to eliminate the use of pepper spray in juvenile halls, but its use has persisted. In fact, a report released by the Probation Oversight Commission in November found that its use has actually escalated. According to the report, pepper spray was deployed at Central Juvenile Hall and Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall a total of 232 times between June and September of this year. The report stated that the majority of young people being sprayed are identified by the county as “developmentally disabled,” kids who identify as victims of commercial sexual exploitation, and young people who are emotionally challenged.
“The findings were incredibly disheartening and egregious as there was a documented increase in the substantial use of (pepper) spray, specifically at Central Juvenile Hall, despite its lower population of incarcerated youth,” according to a motion introduced by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Lindsey Horvath.
All five board members expressed frustration on Tuesday, Dec. 20, as they discussed the report, with probation officials pointing to issues such as reduced staffing levels and inadequate training in alternative dispute-resolution methods for the continued use of Oleoresin Capsicum, or pepper, spray. County Chief Probation Officer Adolfo Gonzales told the board pepper spray is used primarily to break up fights between juvenile detainees that are often racially motivated or gang-related.
The Probation Oversight Commission report stated that the Probation Department had participated in a training program that dealt with working with young people with developmental disabilities, but the training stopped during the pandemic, and it has not been reinstated.
“Your department should have figured out how to keep this training going,” Supervisor Janice Hahn told Gonzales, adding that staff need training in alternative ways to handle tense situations.
After a pointed discussion, the board unanimously approved the motion, which called on the Probation Department to develop a plan for eliminating the use of pepper spray at juvenile hall units “that incarcerate youth with developmental disabilities and girls and gender expansive youth at Central Juvenile Hall” within 45 days. It also instructed the county CEO to cut off funding for the purchase of the spray while calling for regular updates on the phase-out. It also called for the development of a Credible Messenger Program Pilot at the juvenile halls, using mentors to engage with youth at the halls to create a “more humane and trauma-informed environment” in the halls.
During the meeting, Solis said it was “upsetting” that the board even had to take up the issue again, four years after ordering a halt to the use of the spray.
“Four years is too long,” Solis said in a statement after the vote. “These are vulnerable youth who should be on a path to healing, but instead are further traumatized by these actions. It is inhumane that youth with developmental disabilities, girls, and gender-expansive adolescents are being met with OC spray. This must end, and it must end now.”