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Home / Blogs / Last Blog on Earth
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Monday, May 07, 2012 - Last Blog on Earth | News

Reactions to our investigation into pepper spray at juvenile hall

ACLU says it's time for a review, supervisors seem content with status quo

By Dave Maass

The local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union has called for a review of the San Diego County Probation Department 's practices in response to a CityBeat story on the use of pepper spray in local juvenile halls. In the investigative report published Wednesday, we found that San Diego County juvenile halls recorded four times as many "OC Spray" incidents as Los Angeles County's detention system, which is double in size.

Dave Maass discusses the story on KPBS Evening Edition.

We've also received reactions from county supervisors and candidates running in this year's supervisor elections, expressing various levels of concern. Supervisor Dianne Jacob says that after a thorough briefing from Chief Probation Officer Mack Jenkins, she's determined that the policies are "responsible and reasonable measures." Supervisor Ron Roberts defended the "spray-first policy" with the argument that meth addicts have brittle bones and are easily injured when restrained by other means.

Meanwhile, two candidates for supervisorDave Roberts who's running for the open District 3 seat, and Brant Will, who's challenging Supervisor Greg Coxexpressed concern about officer and juvenile safety but said the county should take a look at alternatives.

Scroll to read the responses:

Margaret Dooley-Sammuli, senior policy advocate for criminal justice and drug policy, ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties. Via email:

“Based on CityBeat’s findings, the ACLU is very concerned that pepper spray is being too readily used against youth in San Diego’s juvenile detention facilities. Can a pepper spray usage rate four times that of Los Angeles really be justified? Or is there something wrong with the system? The Probation Department has so far defended its policies. That’s not good enough. The department needs to review its policies and practices to ensure that pepper spray is used only when other, less hostile measures—including de-escalation techniques—will not suffice. Doing otherwise harms detained youth and undermines the department’s rehabilitative mission.”

Dr. Kathleen Edwards, chairperson of the San Diego County Juvenile Justice Commission, which oversees the halls, via email:

"The Juvenile Justice is concerned about all issues which affect minors in detention. We held a lengthy conversation regarding the use of OC at our JJC Monthly meeting yesterday. We will add questions relating to the use of OC to our inspection template. We will continue to monitor the situation."


Supervisor Dianne Jacob, via email:

"Whether pepper spray is being overused on juveniles is a legitimate question in light of the statistics provided to CityBeat. I’ve communicated with our head of probation and received what I consider to be a thorough briefing on the policies and practices governing its use in our facilities. My briefing included additional information about the cities that have scaled back their use of the tool. Based on Mack’s credibility as a law enforcement professional and the information his office provided to me, I am satisfied that county’s current practices are responsible and reasonable measures to protect the safety of detention staff and juveniles in custody.”

Supervisor Greg Cox, via email: 
“County staff in our detention facilities have difficult, dangerous jobs and they care deeply about the safety of the juveniles in their custody. Our Chief Probation Officer continuously evaluates new ways of serving the public better. Going forward, I’m sure he will consider any options to safely and effectively protect and maintain control of the juveniles placed in detention. It is a legitimate issue for further review by the Chief Probation Officer in his ongoing efforts to use best practices.”

Cox is challenged in the 2012 by
Brant Will, a deputy city attorney in San Diego. Via email:
I read your article on the use of pepper spray on kids in juvenile detention facilities and I'm clearly not competent to comment on whether the use was excessive, appropriate, etc., but I do think it's worth looking into. The safety of the officers involved is paramount and it seems as if the current level of pepper spray use may be effective in that regard. But that doesn't mean that there are not practices that could have the same results in terms of safety without causing so much harm to the kids being sprayed, both physically and in terms of their relationship to the guards and the juvenile justice system. If there is a better way we should use it but if the County is unwilling to examine its practices how would it ever know if there is a solution or even a problem? We have all seen images of the use of pepper spray and other non-lethal control mechanisms in places where it seems inappropriate (UC Davis and Occupy New York come to mind) and this is clearly not an issue where we should passively stand by and accept the status quo. Thanks for your good work on this and I hope the County will examine its practices and change them if warranted.

Supervisor Ron Roberts
, via email:
"The policy of using pepper spray first seems proper. It reduces the risk of physical injury to both the youth and members of the staff. Many of those incarcerated are users of crystal methamphetamine, which is known to cause brittle bones. The high incidence of pepper spray usage in comparison to other counties is something I would expect our probation department to further analyze, along with the frequency of physical injury to staff and the youth."
Roberts' spokesperson Tim McClain later added, "Ron’s understanding of the decision to use spray rather than physical force is that it comes only after other options for dealing with a situation have been exhausted. Not sure that was clear in his quote."


Solana Beach Deputy Mayor Dave Roberts
is running for the open supervisor seat currently held by Supervisor Pam Slater-Price. Via telephone:
I think that pepper spray should be used a last resort, and we need to look at all the other means for maintaining order. We have to look out for the protection of the guards and juveniles. I’ve been meeting with heads of all the departments, and I would like to meet with Mack Jenkins to talk to him about this. I don’t want to jump to any conclusions without all the facts. I’m known to try to listen to get all the information before I [come to a] conclusion, but I have to say the story caught me by surprise by how much it's used. I don’t have all the details, but if I am the next supervisor, that is something I’d look at closely.
 
 
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