With a unanimous vote, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday directed the county’s Inspector General to investigate safety concerns in juvenile halls and probation camps, particularly around the use of pepper spray.
The investigation is intended to ensure the well-being of youth in Probation Department custody, as well as staff.
Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, the principal author of the motion, said he felt deeply concerned after the use of pepper spray in Los Angeles County’s three juvenile halls tripled from 2015 to 2017. More serious incidents have also been reported recently.
“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,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “Ongoing safety concerns in Probation underscore the need for further oversight, reform and institutional accountability.”
Board Chair Janice Hahn, who co-authored the motion, said, “We are trying to provide the best possible conditions in our facilities – both for the children we have been entrusted to supervise and the staff who are working with them every day. This investigation will be important for getting clear answers about why the number of incidents of pepper spray use has gone up as well as why some of these incidents have gone unreported.”
The Inspector General, in coordination with County Counsel and the Chief Probation Officer, is to report back to the Board in 45 days.
The investigation will be conducted while the Board-appointed Probation Reform and Implementation Team continues to develop a comprehensive plan for reforming the nation’s largest Probation Department to make it more transparent and accountable to the public. In its upcoming meetings, it will take on the important issue of improving juvenile facilities, including looking at the use of force and pepper spray.
“The use of pepper spray eliminates trust between youth and staff and causes not just physical but emotional harms and traumas,” said Esther Lim, director of the Jails Project at the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. She also testified about the long history of pepper spray being misused in the county.
“Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division found that overuse of chemical agents by Probation likely violated the Constitution,” Lim said. “It is clear that there needs to be a robust Probation Oversight Commission with investigatory powers and a role in setting policy to protect the safety of children under its supervision.”
Kent Mendoza, a policy coordinator with the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a nonprofit criminal justice reform advocacy group, spoke from personal experience about how pepper spray affected him.
“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,” he told the Board. “Chemical spray was dehumanizing and sent a clear message to me and other youth that juvenile hall, and eventually prison, was where we belonged.”