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Report: Teens exploited low staffing, mismanagement in LA juvenile hall escape attempt

During the escape attempt, 100 staff members were scheduled — the minimum needed to run Los Padrinos — for the shift, but only 40 showed up

Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall

Downey, CA - June 29: Aerial view of Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall in Downey Thursday, June 29, 2023. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Allen J. Schaben/TNS

By Jason Henry
Los Angeles Daily News

LOS ANGELES — Teenage detainees at Los Padrinos Juvenile Hall exploited the facility’s understaffing in November to execute a coordinated escape attempt, during which one youth managed to scale a wall and reach a waiting car before he was apprehended, according to a new report from the Los Angeles County Office of Inspector General.

The escape attempt on Nov. 3 lasted just 12 minutes, but exposed multiple points of failure at the renovated Downey facility housing nearly 300 juvenile detainees every day.

Staffing levels were dangerously low as the shift began that night.

The department had scheduled 100 staff members — the minimum needed to run Los Padrinos — for the shift, but only 40 showed up. The facility’s supervisors managed to cobble together a team of 64 to manage the juvenile hall’s 18 units by pulling officers from other assignments, according to the March 7 report to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

In Unit X2, where the escape attempt began, two officers were overseeing 14 youth, slightly above the state’s requirement for one officer per 10 youth. At the time of the escape, one officer had gone to the bathroom and left the other alone with the youth, in violation of department policy and state law, the inspector general found.

“The Department did not staff the unit properly, assigning too few staff to meet the required ratio and assigning staff who lacked proper training and experience,” wrote Max Huntsman, the inspector general.

How it happened

At 7:52 p.m., one detainee asked the remaining probation officer — who typically was deployed in the field and had never worked in the juvenile halls — to unlock his room. As the officer unlocked the door, the youth grabbed the keys, while another youth pulled the officer away.

A senior detention services officer, who had been sitting in the unit’s office, intercepted the key-carrying youth in a breezeway, but a group of five other juveniles pushed out of the unit and attacked the officer. The juveniles managed to unlock the next door during the scuffle and scattered across a field toward the west perimeter wall, according to the report.

An officer stationed in a nearby outpost saw them, but could not call for assistance because his radio was not charged, investigators found. A juvenile “threatened him not to come out of the outpost” and he complied.

The officer, who was on light duty due to work restrictions, later stated that “due to safety concerns he did not intervene nor deploy Oleoresin Capscium (OC) spray,” according to the report. A second officer positioned on the opposite side of the field instead radioed in the escape attempt.

Meanwhile, the juveniles lifted the original instigator up to a conduit pipe on the perimeter wall and he scaled over it. Special Enforcement Operations officers arrived just before 8 p.m. and ordered the remaining juveniles to the ground.

The SEO officers searched the perimeter and found the escaped youth “with a female companion in a car approximately 600 feet from the facility,” the report states. A change of clothes was prepared inside.

Second attempt in 4 months

It was the second escape attempt at Los Padrinos in just four months. Yet, the OIG’s investigation suggests the Probation Department had failed to learn to from the first attempt in July.

Youth who had participated in that escape attempt were not separated. In fact, one juvenile involved had “used the same method to assist another youth to escape in the earlier attempt,” according to the report.

Investigators also determined the facility’s nearly 14-foot perimeters walls are too short and that there were not enough cameras covering the escape route. The supervising deputy probation officer who lost their keys at the start of the incident had never worked in the juvenile halls and had not received crisis management training in more than a decade.

Staff had work restrictionsThe report also criticized the department for assigning staff with work restrictions to areas of the facility “that may require physically apprehending youths attempting to escape.”

“Currently, the Department assigns staff with reasonable work accommodations to the outposts, which are located near the walls and designed to observe areas away from the main facilities,” the report states. “But these staff positions also serve as the last line of defense if youths attempt to escape.”

Additionally, officers did not know how to contact local law enforcement for help and could not use their radios to connect to law enforcement channels. One officer tried to text the Downey Police Department to no avail, while another called 911 instead.

“In an emergency, the Probation Department cannot request that Downey or South Gate police departments dispatch units immediately or communicate with these police agencies directly via radio,” the report states. “In addition, the Probation Department does not provide staff with any instruction or guidance on how to respond and communicate with local law enforcement during an emergency.”

Fixes recommendedThe inspector general’s report includes a series of recommendations, including the installation of keypad locks on unit doors, additional training for emergencies and deescalation, and periodic reviews of housing assignments to separate youths who should not be housed together based on past conduct and affiliations.

Huntsman wrote that the department should “immediately” disband all nonessential field staff units, retrain those employees and then deploy them to the juvenile halls.

Those recommendations are currently under review, according to the Probation Department.

Security upgradesThe department installed razor wire along Los Padrinos’ perimeter and implemented other new security features following the escape attempt in November. At least one staff member is under investigation for policy violations related to the incident.

“The Department is committed to full implementation of any corrective actions that strengthens and improves the operations of our juvenile facilities as well as cooperation with the OIG,” probation officials said in a statement.

An unpopular emergency staffing plan is expected to reassign 200 officers from the department’s field operations to Los Padrinos on 60-day rotations. Those officers will undergo training prior to their deployment.

Sworn managers also will be deployed to the halls for 90 days to assist with the department’s efforts to bring the facility back up to the state’s minimum standards.

“It is our hope that these changes will allow for effective operation of our juvenile facilities, protect the community from public safety risks and tighten our security protocols going forward,” the department’s statement read.

Los Padrinos and the Barry J. Nidorf Secure Youth Treatment Facility in Sylmar are facing potential shutdowns due to the poor conditions at both locations. The Board of State and Community Corrections , the regulatory body overseeing prisons and juvenile halls, ordered the Probation Department to fix a series of deficiencies, largely attributable to the staffing crisis, by mid-April, or it must empty both facilities.

‘Abdicated their responsibility’

County Supervisor Janice Hahn requested the OIG investigation in November.

In a statement, she said it is “critically important we not only find out what failures led to escapes from Los Padrinos, but ensure that the probation department puts in place measures to prevent them from going forward.”

“The report identifies multiple shortcomings that directly contributed to the escapes, but also makes commonsense recommendations like keeping radios charged and developing a direct line to local law enforcement,” she stated. “It is my expectation that the Probation Department make it a priority to implement all of these recommendations.”

Supervisor Lindsay Horvath, the chair of the board, said the OIG’s report makes it clear that probation staff “have abdicated their responsibility.”

“The young people in our care deserve a system that provides them with the resources and structure needed to successfully reenter our communities,” she said. “For this to happen, we need staff who show up for each other and model the kind of behavior we want to see in our young people.”

Though the new plan to redeploy field officers has drawn flak, the executive board of the Los Angeles County Deputy Probation Officers’ Union is urging its members to support the plan. The ongoing crisis “puts the future of the Department” and the officers’ jobs “in serious jeopardy,” they wrote in a recent post on the union’s website.

“Please do not call out or no-show,” the executive board wrote. “This will undermine the Probation Department’s ability to meet BSSC requirements and our Union’s responsibility to protect your jobs.”

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