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.