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Saturday, February 21, 2009

Oklahoma youths won’t face Tasers

February 21, 2009

The state Office of Juvenile Affairs’ board of directors took no action Friday on a proposal to allow pepper spray or Taser use at state juvenile detention centers.

The board heard nearly two hours of presentations, which included Juvenile Affairs staff members using a Taser gun on a police officer in a protective suit. But the board took no action on an agenda item to let Executive Director Gene Christian and staff draft rules allowing workers to use the shock device on juveniles.

About 97 percent of all workers’ compensation claims at the Office of Juvenile Affairs come from staff members injured while trying to restrain juveniles at one of the state’s residential youth detention centers, said Thomas Micah, who is in charge of safety and risk management for the office. Over the past four budget years, Juvenile Affairs paid nearly $2.5 million to injured workers, Micah said. Currently, staff members who work in the facilities carry only handcuffs to restrain unruly youths.

"We have an obligation to the people we hire to provide a safe working environment,” Micah told the board.

"We have employees who are afraid of where they work, and we have juveniles who are afraid of where they live.”

Discussion about using other types of force at the juvenile centers began in January after three violent assaults on staff members occurred in December. On Friday, the board heard a presentation from an Oklahoma City Police Department sergeant who trains officers on how to use nonlethal force. The board also heard comments from juvenile advocates who were against the use of pepper spray or Tasers at the detention centers.

Psychologist cites risks

Office of Juvenile Affairs chief psychologist Stephen Grissom worried that more force could be detrimental to youths and their treatment.

"My concern is that these are abused, angry individuals,” Grissom said. Hurting them will anger them more, he said.

"This isn’t treatment.”

Christian said he wanted to start the discussion and educate board members on the dangers that staff members face.

"Our entire arsenal in the event of an issue at a facility is staff and handcuffs,” he said. "To use handcuffs, you have to lay hands on a child. I think we at least need to have the discussion of giving staff an additional tool.”

However, there wasn’t enough support on the board to muster a motion. Gary Taylor, board chairman, said he was opposed the use of additional force.

"At some point, you have to say, ‘Who are our clients?’ Kids who have known violence,” the board chairman said.

"I’m very much committed against the use of pepper spray and Tasers in our institutions.”

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