On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a motion to create a trauma-informed system to support families whose loved ones were killed by members of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department or who died in custody.
“Improving the way LA County interacts with, and supports, grieving families who have lost a loved one from a fatal use of force or in-custody death is another important aspect of public safety and criminal justice reform,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who introduced the motion with Supe. Sheila Kuehl. “If done right, this type of communication can reduce trauma, support families, and improve community and law enforcement relations. This is no small thing – public safety doesn’t come without public trust.”
At the prompting of the Office of the Inspector General, the Civilian Oversight Commission (CoC) formed an ad hoc committee to address the issue. During the course of their work, the committee met with the sheriff’s department, the coroner’s office, and other relevant county agencies, as well as community organizations and, most importantly, dozens of family members who lost loved ones.
The CoC found that law enforcement often leaves families of those who died without adequate information regarding the circumstances surrounding the death of their child, parent, sister, brother or other family member. Then, once informed of a death, families are often treated clumsily by the sheriff’s department, and do not receive sufficient support to address the trauma they experience following the crushing loss of someone they love.
Families reported getting information about the death of a loved one that was confusing, contradictory, and woefully incomplete, according to the report. And the news was frequently not delivered in a “sensitive manner,” according to the report.
In some instances, families said that they were not told by the LASD that their family member was dead at all, but instead they heard the awful news from the media, or through community rumors. Sometimes, families received mixed information regarding where the body of their loved one was located.
“This [motion] is brought to you today on behalf of 22 family members who met with the CoC’s workgroup,” Youth Justice Coalition’s Kim McGill said. “It’s also on behalf of 851 people killed between 2000, and 2017 by law enforcement in LA County … It’s brought to you from family members who found out that their loved ones were dead from either the media or neighbors instead of from the departments themselves. It’s brought to you from family members who searched hospitals for their loved ones and were denied entry to see the body…”
The motion, McGill said, was a historic one.
“We think it’s the first time in the nation’s history, not just in LA’s history, but the nation’s history when a law enforcement agency has taken seriously the concerns of family members and has articulated rights for families in terms of their treatment,” the community organizer said.
The CoC committee developed seven recommendations for the sheriff’s department:
- Establish an entity consisting of a multi-disciplinary team capable of providing ongoing support, resources and transparent communication to families of the deceased.
- Hold continuous trauma-informed training for all Sheriff’s Department personnel who encounter family members.
- Maintain fairness and withhold judgement when the Sheriff’s Department provides information to the media, including the characterization of the subject of the investigation.
- Advocate for changes in current state laws regarding access to victim resources.
- Establish a program to assist families who experience a Sheriff’s Department-related death of a loved one with funeral costs and other expenses, including trauma and grief counseling.
- Develop a pamphlet for family members of deputy involved shootings and in-custody deaths.
- Create a website and/or social media page that explains Sheriff’s Department procedures and protocol related to in-custody deaths and fatal deputy-related uses of force.
LA County Sheriff Jim McDonnell stressed the sheriff’s department’s support of the commission’s recommendations. “As we strive to improve our communication with families going through the trauma of a loss of a family member, I understand this is one of the most critical points of contact between the department and these families,” McDonnell said.
McDonnell said that the department did not currently have “a specific course” focused on trauma-informed communication. “However, in our patrol school, we do train in crime survivors and victim communication dealing with individuals suffering from mental illness,” the sheriff said.
With regard to the multi-disciplinary family response teams, McDonnell recommended “that the family response team be established by a third party outside the sheriff’s department to avoid any conflict of interest after a critical incident such as a deputy-involved shooting.”
The motion directs the County CEO’s Office to meet with the sheriff, the civilian commission and its committee, the Inspector General’s Office, and other county departments to review the COC report and report back to the supervisors with a plan for implementation within 60 days.
“People in the community need to know that they matter and this is a great opportunity for the Sheriff, the Civilian Oversight Commission and the community to say, ‘Everyone matters,’” said CoC Executive Director Brian Williams told the Board.
“The Board’s action today moves us closer to an empathetic protocol to guide the Sheriff’s Department as it deals with shocked and grieving family members,” Supervisor Kuehl after the vote.
Photo by Dave Franco / Board of Supervisors – Los Angeles County Sheriff Jim McDonnell provides testimony at the October 9, 2018 Board of Supervisors meeting.