The pregnant girl was terrified when she was hit by a burning stream of pepper spray fired by a Los Angeles County probation officer trying to break up a fight involving others at a juvenile hall.
She couldn't breathe.
The chili pepper-infused chemical burned her skin.
U.S. & World
"I thought I was going to die," the girl said later, in a recollection recorded in documents obtained by NBC4. "I was scared... It was a terrible day."
The girl and her baby were OK, but her account, documented in a 2016 county audit, highlights a growing trend. Probation officers in LA County are using more pepper spray — the highest level of force used within juvenile detention facilities — than they have in years.
The LA County Probation Department recorded 747 uses of pepper spray in 2017 at juvenile halls and camps, a jump of 154 percent over 2015 when the department used pepper spray 294 times, according to an analysis of department data. It appears that trend is likely to continue, as between January and July of this year the department reported 404 such uses of force. These uses of force were recorded at the county's juvenile halls and camps which house about 800 males and females ranging in age from 12 to 20, with the average age of 16.
This is a department that has had this problem before. It was under federal oversight for years for how it has treated juveniles in custody, and the department dramatically dropped its pepper spray use during that time. But once the feds left, the number began climbing again.
It's become so troubling that Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas on Wednesday called for the county's Inspector General to investigate.
"It's pretty clear there are substantial concerns," Ridley-Thomas said. "We're at a point where the board of supervisors can no longer wait to find out what's really going on."
The motion will be introduced at the County Board of Supervisors meeting next week. If passed, the OIG will report findings to the board in 45 days.
Chief Probation Officer Terri L. McDonald said she welcomes the investigation, saying in a statement, "I defer to the wisdom of the board and I continue to support and welcome independent reviews of our systems and processes as we are a department focused on self-correction and accountability."
A nine-month investigation by NBC4 sheds light on some of the incidents and found the increase comes at a time when many agencies across the country are either banning or restricting pepper spray use in juvenile lockups.
'Back to Business as Usual'
Agencies across the country that have banned or restricted pepper spray say it's ineffective, counter to rehabilitation, bad for health and a potential liability.
The chemical can cause swelling, blistering, scarring, wheezing, and respiratory arrest. It can be particularly dangerous for people who have asthma or who are on psychotropic medication. Its effects can be exacerbated in confined spaces like county lockups, according to the Center for Children's Law and Policy, which works to eliminate dangerous and inhumane practices for youth in custody.
The spike in LA comes amid a historic drop in juvenile detention populations during a major national reform push toward diversion and rehabilitation and away from juvenile incarceration.
LA County Probation has had a history of U.S. Department of Justice investigations and monitoring for the way it treats juveniles in lockups, including punitive, excessive uses of pepper spray, dating back to at least 2000.
DOJ investigations found that conditions at the halls and camps were violating youths' rights when it came to medical and mental health care. The DOJ found that camps offered little in the way of rehabilitation programs and were run like boot camps where officers were verbally abusive and used excessive force.
Federal investigators found that large, open dorms "'can foster competition, deepen factions and further gang problems,' creating an environment that feels unsafe for youth," a 2017 study from the LA County executive's office recalled.
"The fact that this issue is resurfacing to this degree is very troubling," said Sue Burrell, the policy and training director for the nonprofit Pacific Juvenile Defender Center. "It sounds like when the DOJ left, they went back to business as usual."
Ridley-Thomas, who is spearheading a new reform push, said he's deeply concerned, but stopped short of saying whether pepper spray should be banned.
"The skyrocketing numbers with pepper spray can't be a sign of what makes this the kind of probation department that it needs to be," he said. "The mandate is rehabilitation."
'Different Job Today'
Department officials attribute the spike to an increase in attacks by juveniles on probation staff.
But officials also admit some probation officers are living in the past.
"Some of the officers still want to live in the model of custody and control," said David Mitchell, the Los Angeles County Probation Department's deputy director of the residential treatment services bureau. "This is a different job than it was 10 years ago. We have different tools to work with these kids. Part of that is relationship building."
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 685, the union that represents LA County deputy probation officers, says officers feel they're not adequately trained to handle an increasingly dangerous workplace.
"LA County's professional probation staff have consistently spoken out about the unsafe conditions in the halls and camps, the lack of training, support, and mentoring provided by the department, and the hostile work environment that has demoralized staff," said Hans Liang, the interim president of AFSCME Local 685, in a statement. "This toxic work environment — and the unwillingness of department leadership and their direct supervisors to listen to the concerns expressed by seasoned officers — has directly impacted our ability to rehabilitate the youth in our care."
Thomas Bell, an LA County probation officer, echoed the statement in a probation reform meeting on Wednesday.
"When we got 20 kids who are about my size fighting in the yard or somewhere, how do we break that up if we don't have pepper spray?" he asked the panel. "How do we break that up, keep them from killing each other?"
'You Feel Like Your Body is on Fire'
The department denied several California Public Records Act requests seeking summaries of uses of pepper spray — even with names of juveniles and officers redacted, citing juvenile and peace officer privacy laws, making it difficult to know how the department handles such cases. But interviews with teens as part of a county audit in November 2016 offer a glimpse inside.
"You feel like your body is on fire," a teen told an interviewer.
"It was hard to breathe," said another, according to the audit.
Some kids break out in welts, another said.
"I've seen a lot of kids break out," a teen said, according to the report.
Another kid said he saw a probation officer accidentally spray himself, twice. The first time, the teen said, the spray got in the officer's eyes and kids helped him to the bathroom so he could wash his eyes out in the sink.
A teen at Camp Onizuka said an officer pepper sprayed him out of the view of surveillance cameras after telling him, "I'm going to spray you and then I'm going to f--- you up."
He said that when he brought up the incident with a judge, he was threatened to be sprayed again and was sent to isolation by the officer who sprayed him.
The pregnant girl said the officer who sprayed her apologized.
The names of the teens' interviewed as part of the audit were kept confidential and their accounts couldn't be independently verified.
"The goal of this report was to directly hear the unfiltered voices of youth in probation camps without any other juvenile justice stakeholder's involvement, while protecting the confidentiality of youths' identities," said the audit conducted by the Violence Intervention Program, a child abuse agency based in Oakland. "As mandated reporters, VIP did not find any incidents from the interviews where the youth was in imminent danger of harm which would have required immediate disclosure of the relevant portions of the youth's conversation."
The probation department said in a statement it takes all allegations of abuse and violations of policy seriously.
"However, when we get reports without youth names or dates of allegations, it is very difficult for us to cross-check whether the allegations made at the time and the researchers protect the anonymity of the persons being surveyed," the department said.
"The vagueness of these allegations also make it difficult to investigate. As with all allegations, we seek additional facts and often times the allegations are not able to be sustained."
Kent Mendoza says he was pepper sprayed 10 different times while in juvenile lockups.
The former gang member who now works at the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, a nonprofit that supports formerly incarcerated young people in the region, described one instance when he was pepper sprayed during a fight between two boys at a county juvenile facility.
"The staff, what they did like was, 'Get down! Get down!'" he said. "Ten seconds pass and if nothing happens and they don't stop fighting, they start pepper spraying."
Pepper Spray is a Last Resort
LA County Probation is the largest such agency in the country, with a $1 billion budget. It supervises 40,000 adults and about 8,000 juveniles, more than 800 of whom are held in the halls and camps across the county.
More than 1,300 probation officers at three juvenile halls and three camps across LA County are authorized to carry pepper spray, the highest level of force used by the department.
Guns aren't permitted in halls and camps.
The department uses an escalating scale of force, ranging from least restrictive — verbal and physical — to most restrictive — pepper spray — to quell serious disturbances, riots or assaults on teens or staff.
Probation officers can only use pepper spray as a last resort and only after all other methods to de-escalate crises have failed, according to department policy.
The policy states that after an incident, those who are sprayed are required to get medical treatment while personnel involved are required to submit reports that are reviewed to determine whether the use of force was warranted.
But written policies don't always translate into intended practice, said a 2011 report on pepper spray use from the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators, a national nonprofit working to improve juvenile correctional services across the country.
"Most of the anecdotal information about use of restraints that is made public are reports of abuse and dangerous practices, investigations and litigation," the report said.
California Had Opportunity to Restrict Pepper Spray Use
California is out of step with the rest of the country, Burrell said. California is one of a little more than a dozen states that allow the use of pepper spray in juvenile facilities.
It's one of only five states that allow staff to carry pepper spray, according to a report from the Council of Juvenile Correctional Administrators.
California had a chance to restrict it earlier this year, through Assembly Bill 2010. But probation officers cried foul, saying that without it, the lives of officers and kids would be in danger.
"If you enact AB2010, then you should be prepared to lower the staffing ratios, repeal the restrictions on room confinement, and separate the more serious offenders from other juvenile offenders," Alberto Torrico, a lobbyist with the State Coalition of Probation Organizations, testified at a state assembly public safety hearing in April.
"You should be prepared to accept that the only means you are leaving officers to ensure the safety of all juveniles in these facilities is physical force and intervention. That is the reality this bill creates, not a violence-free nirvana the sponsor's portraying."
Pepper Spray Use Varies Across California
San Francisco bans it. Allen Nance, the agency's chief juvenile probation officer, said there's an expectation that if pepper spray is available, it will be used.
"Since there is no culture on the part of the youth or the staff for such use, other efforts to manage the behavior of detained youth continue to be an effective alternative to such uses of force," Nance said. "By incentivizing positive behavior, we see fewer incidents of aggression and other forms of noncompliance from our youth."
The Santa Clara County Probation Department also bans pepper spray in juvenile facilities. The agency has a so-called Crisis Diffusion Policy that helps officers recognize and deal with signs of oncoming crises before they escalate. Staff should allow a child to talk and the officer should listen, the policy states.
The policy also spells out expectations of officers saying they should be calm, direct, and should talk about consequences, but make no threats.
"Don't tell them to 'be quiet' or 'shut up,' or talk while they are speaking. Instead, allow them to feel heard," the policy states. "Group Counselors should refrain from becoming escalated themselves."
These agencies are much smaller than LA, but it's possible to operate safe juvenile lockups in big urban areas without pepper spray, such as Philadelphia, Boston and Memphis that don't use pepper spray, said Mark Soler, the executive director of the Center for Children's Law and Policy, a national public interest law firm that makes recommendations for reforms of juvenile justice systems across the country.
He said he's not surprised that assaults on staff at LA juvenile lockups is up.
"If you treat human beings like animals, it's not surprising they react violently," he said. "Use of pepper spray is never justified with a young person."
LA Tries Reform Again
A 500-page $1 million LA Probation Governance Study released in February put out a laundry list of problems at the Probation Department. Juvenile halls, the study said, are run down, beyond repair in some cases, and are a danger to youth. The report describes barracks-style halls and camps and punitive, prison-like conditions.
It said Central Juvenile Hall, which department data showed had the highest number of uses of pepper spray among all of the county juvenile facilities, was "unfit for housing young people and a terrible environment for staff."
The department noted recent upgrades at Central, including a family resource center, new cameras and a renovated unit that treats emotionally-fragile youth. The unit includes brightly colored housing rooms, a small library, and space outdoors with brightly colored benches, and a small floral garden.
The report also found the department lacked leadership stability, was siloed, had problematic training gaps and was resistant to change. It found dysfunction and bureaucratic loops, and inefficient and outdated systems to track down information and data to make the department more accountable.
The report found that facilities look like jails.
As one teen put it in the report: "When I was coming up through the hall, we didn't have any resources besides the church. All I learned in the hall was fighting and gangbanging... Nothing went on but fighting and gangbanging."
A new LA County Probation Reform and Implementation Team, made up of policy and community leaders, began meeting this year for the first time. The team's goal is to form a new probation oversight commission, to replace the existing one, that would make recommendations to county supervisors.
In a letter to county supervisors in September, the head of the probation department says the agency is working on a "20-year strategy for juvenile facilities."
But a turnaround will be a big challenge for a department long-resistant to change. Earlier reform efforts failed for a lack of will locally and nationally, Ridley-Thomas said.
"Cultural change of a department this large is clearly not easy," Ridley-Thomas said at the inaugural meeting of the reform team in August. "Reform must be addressed and it must be addressed with urgency, decisiveness and intentionality."
Mendoza said it's not about policy, it's about people.
"I wasn't born to be a criminal," he said. "There's factors that led to me. And now I am in the system. The staff has some of the responsibility to also find some kind of connection."