Supervisors Create Program to Support Families Affected by Sheriff Use-of-Force or In-Custody Deaths

Recognizing that deaths from the use of force by, or in the custody of, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) can traumatize the families who lost a loved one, witnesses, and the community – regardless of the circumstances that led to the fatality – the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously today to create a Family Assistance Program.

Acting on a motion by Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, the Board called for providing families with grief counseling and other mental health services, funds to assist with burial costs, and timely, respectful and compassionate updates. More than 100 people have died from LASD use of force or the custody in the last three years and their families’ trauma is sometimes compounded by how they were told what happened, how their relatives were characterized, and insufficient information.

COC Executive Director Brian Williams, COC Chair Patti Giggans, and Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. Photo by Bryan Chan/Board of Supervisors

“Creating a Family Assistance Program is, at its core, about offering compassion in the face of crisis,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. “We’ve heard about situations where families weren’t given the chance to say goodbye to their loved one, or weren’t told when the Coroner would release the body, or weren’t given any services for their healing or any support to bury their loved one. We can and we must do better.”

“When families and communities need to heal, it is incumbent upon us to marshal our resources to help them,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas added. “A Family Assistance Program is not only humane; it can also improve police-community relations and prevent further violence.”

“When a death occurs that involves law enforcement, family members and witnesses are often anxious and confused. If someone has been killed, family members are in shock and grieving,” said Supervisor Kuehl. “The Family Assistance Program provides new services, both emotional and financial so that our residents are provided much-needed support at moments of crisis.”

The motion calls for establishing a Family Assistance Program as outlined in a recent report by County Chief Executive Officer Sachi Hamai entitled “Supporting Families Impacted by the Sheriff’s Department.” The report, prompted by another Ridley-Thomas/Kuehl motion, back in October, details how to implement the recommendations of the Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) for the LASD and includes input from advocacy groups such as the Youth Justice Coalition which developed a Family Bill of Rights.

“We should recognize that this motion is not just for the family that is affected, it is also for a community traumatized by the loss of a friend or a colleague,” COC Executive Director Brian Williams said. “That we now have a program to treat them with respect, to keep them informed, to avoid sullying the name of the fallen, and to address trauma and other unfortunate consequences is a testament to what can happen when we all work together for the good of all.”

Peace Over Violence Executive Director and COC Chair Patt Giggans described the motion as historic. “The COC studied the issue of how families are treated after losing a loved one in a deputy-involved shooting or in-custody death,” she said. “Our recommendation to create a Family Assistance Program was inspired by the families themselves, so they can be provided with no-fault trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed communications and support services.”

Several justice reform advocates and community members, including representatives of families still grieving the loss of a loved one and seeking support, testified in support of the motion. Johnny Torres, a community intervention worker with Soledad Enrichment Action, said, “Whatever the facts of the shootings, the families don’t deserve to be punished. We want to support the Family Assistance Program and help the families through these hardships and ordeals so they receive the treatment needed and also the financial support to bury their loved ones.”

Under the program, the County would hire Family Assistance Advocates, housed in the Department of Mental Health, to serve as the primary point of contact for grieving families, and establish policies and procedures to assist them with paying burial costs. Meanwhile, staff in various County departments who interact with such families, including the Sheriff’s Department and the Medical Examiner-Coroner, would receive training that acknowledges their grief and trauma, and participate on a multi-disciplinary team to ensure coordination and timely communication.

The motion also calls for pursuing legislation that would expand the definition of victims and make more people eligible for state-funded support. Additionally, it calls for developing protocols to provide trauma-informed responses and services to the larger community, including community members who witness the incident, led by the Department of Public Health, particularly the Office of Violence Prevention.

Departments key to ensuring effective implementation, including the Sheriff’s Department, testified in support of the Family Assistance Program. Besides the Sheriff, Medical Examiner-Coroner, Mental Health and Public Health Departments, the list also includes the Registrar-Recorder, Inspector General, District Attorney and County CEO.

One-Stop-Shop for Second Chance Opportunities

(Left to Right) Department of Public Works Director Mark Pestrella, Probation Chief Terri McDonald, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Arts Commission Executive Director Kristin Sakoda, and Office of Diversion and Reentry Director Judge Peter Espinoza. Photo by Diandra Jay / Board of Supervisors

Los Angeles County’s first-of-its-kind Reentry Opportunity Center officially opened on Friday, June 28th, 2019 near Exposition Park, providing a one-stop-shop for thousands of Probation clients, as well as their families, to access a wide array of services that can facilitate a successful transition back into society.

“This groundbreaking Center reflects a new but proven approach to making justice more restorative and humane while keeping our communities safe,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who championed the project and led the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “This is an innovative one-stop shop where people can get help to find a job, go back to school, get connected to much-needed housing, get their record cleared, and receive healthcare, therapy and other services crucial to turning someone’s life around – the essential ingredients to giving them a second chance.”

Located at 3965 S. Vermont Avenue, the top floor of the 60,000-sq. ft., three-story modern building features a Developing Opportunities Offering Reentry Solutions Center (DOORS) – unique in the County – which will offer a range of services, including housing, legal aid, job training, education, civic engagement, and health and mental health services, all under one roof.

Chief Probation Officer Terri L. McDonald said the Center represents one of Probation’s strategic goals of delivering targeted, client-centered services through partnerships with other agencies and community-based organizations. “The strategic expansion of our partnerships for targeted resources empowers our clients by providing critical services for opportunity and growth,” she said. “We are certain that this teamwork will make a positive impact on the lives of clients who come through these doors.”

The Center represents a key milestone in shifting away from a punitive to a restorative model that will eventually be replicated across the County. It is the product of close collaboration among the Office of Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, Probation Department, Office of Diversion and Reentry (ODR), and numerous community-based organizations and other County agencies.

“ODR is proud and humbled to be partnering with the Probation Department on LA County’s very first community reentry center,” ODR Executive Director Judge (ret.) Peter Espinoza. “The Center is envisioned to be a place of transformation and rehabilitation, bringing together County agencies and community-based organizations in a warm, welcoming and healing environment.”

A New Way of Life, which has housed and supported more than 1,000 formerly incarcerated women, will be among the nonprofit organizations to offer services at the Center. Its founder, Susan Burton, said, “For twenty years I have been doing the work of reentry for women. When they have needed services, they have had to trek to each individual service provider spread out across the County, which has been detrimental to their success. With this reentry center, the women I work with can go to one place and be connected to a wealth of resources. It was inspiring to be part of the vision and opening today.”

Jonathon Rios expressed his appreciation for the new Center in a spoken word performance, and cited himself as an example of what could happen when people are given a second chance. After a stint in prison, he turned his life around, graduating from college and starting a family. He has worked for the last 10 years at a real estate investment company, is an active member of the Empowerment Congress, and has performed at USC’s Theater for Social Justice and with KPCC’s Unheard LA series.

Rios had a message for those who would be receiving services at the new Center: “Do not allow perceived limitations to anchor you. Refuse to let your past mistake define you. Choose to succeed.”

Advancing Body-Worn Cameras and the Family Assistance Program

Statement by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas on Advancing Body-Worn Cameras and the Family Assistance Program

“The recent spate of officer-involved shootings demonstrates that body-worn cameras, and the transparency and accountability they bring, has never been more important. It also underscores the need to support the healing of families who lost loved ones during these tragedies.

“On Monday, June 24th, the Board of Supervisors will vote on an additional $10.2 million in funding to support the acquisition of body-worn cameras. This comes on top of $32.7 million allocated since April.

“Shortly afterwards, on July 9th, the Board will consider creating a Family Assistance Program to help families devastated by the loss of a loved one during an officer-involved shooting, as well as community members reeling from the incident. It is imperative that they receive the timely communication they deserve and the compassionate help they need for their grief and trauma.

“Officer-involved shootings can cause significant trauma for everyone involved, especially the families. This can be compounded a lack of video footage, coupled with a lack of support for those affected, which could result in distrust, further pain, and even anger.

“In light of that, the Board has been steadfastly working towards the acquisition of body-worn cameras. In August last year, the Board approved my motion with Supervisor Hilda Solis to seek expert advice as well as a cost analysis. It resulted in a report — released this week — by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) whose recommendations included implementing body-worn cameras not only in the Sheriff’s Department but also in the Offices of the District Attorney and Public Defender.

“The Board is now reviewing IACP’s report, as well as a robust set of  recommendations by the Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) late last year on the same topic. Next month, after the County Chief Executive Office’s cost analysis is completed, the Board will be poised to vote on the initial rollout of the body-worn camera program.

“The COC also issued recommendations for creating a Family Assistance Program late last year, after hearing from community-based organizations and families who had received incomplete or contradictory information about the death of their loved one and needed help to heal. Acting on my motion with Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, the Board directed the County CEO to prepare a plan for implementing those recommendations. That plan was submitted this week.

“I look forward to the Board advancing the implementation of body-worn cameras and the Family Assistance Program, both of which I consider essential to the mission to protect and serve.”

Statement on the Passing of LASD Deputy Joseph Solano

“It’s with great sadness that I learned of the passing of Deputy Joseph Solano. I offer my deepest condolences to his family, who lost a loved-one, and to his colleagues in the Sherriff’s department who lost a dear friend. In the face of danger and threats Deputy Solano was known to answer the call. As the details of this tragic event continue to unfold, and we learn the specifics, we will honor his life by standing together and looking out for one another, so that justice is served and his untimely passing will not be in vain.”

Paradigm Shift for Youth with Mental Health Needs in the Justice System

As part of a significant shift to a “care-first” approach to juvenile justice, and to reduce excessive force in Los Angeles County’s probation camps and juvenile halls, the Board of Supervisors called for a plan to divert youth with mental health needs away from locked facilities, and to increase mental health services for youth who remain incarcerated. The motion was in response to growing concerns about inadequate treatment, documented in reports by the County’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) and Department of Mental Health (DMH).

“Failure to provide mental health services to justice-involved youth in our care is not a new problem. The US Department of Justice documented these issues back in 2003 and yet, over 15 years later, the County continues to struggle. This is unacceptable,” Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, lead author of the motion, said. “The current approach of juvenile incarceration is currently re-traumatizing youth and making the facilities less safe. These sobering findings lead to the unavoidable conclusion that a fundamental paradigm shift to a ‘care first’ model is required to achieve rehabilitation and public safety. We cannot allow the status quo to continue.”

“Our probation halls and camps are not meeting the mental health needs of our youth and we need a new approach,” added Supervisor Janice Hahn, co-author of the motion. “Whenever possible, we will divert kids with mental illness out of custody and into community-based treatment. At the same time, we will invest in dramatically improving the mental health services available for the youth who remain in our care.”

In its February 2019 report on safety concerns in juvenile justice facilities, the Inspector General found incidents of youth on psychotropic medication being pepper sprayed, as well as other alarming violations of protocol. In response, the Board asked DMH to assess the mental health needs of youth in County juvenile facilities.

Among the report’s most significant findings is that more than 90 percent of youth in the juvenile halls in 2018 had an open mental health case, representing a 38 percent increase since 2015. These youth are also more likely to have experienced homelessness and commercial sexual exploitation, which aggravate their underlying mental health issues. To address rather than exacerbate this trauma, DMH called for shifting to a “care first” model, including diversion, alternative placements, and increased mental health staff for those that remain in custody. Today’s motion by Supervisors Ridley-Thomas and Hahn seeks to find ways to implement these and other DMH recommendations.

“We believe in care for kids whose lives have been turned upside down by trauma and are in need of treatment, not punishment. Unfortunately, our current systems are not only incompatible with care delivery but also reinforce unhealthy narratives,” DMH Director Jonathan Sherin said. “We need reform and are going for it ‘all in’ as a County with steadfast leadership from the Board of Supervisors and guidance from the community.”

Peter Espinoza, director of the County’s Office of Diversion and Reentry, said his office “understands the importance of providing community-based alternatives for young people who suffer from a mental disorder, and is poised to build on the County’s existing youth diversion model to do so. Diverting young people away from incarceration improves not only health and education outcomes but also decreases their likelihood of reoffending.”