The Board of Supervisors voted this week to have mental health personnel take the lead in reaching out to the families of individuals who are shot by sheriff’s deputies or die in jail, in the face of community complaints about a perceived lack of respect and transparency from sheriff’s officials.
Supervisors Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl co-authored a motion to implement a network of services for families, including crisis intervention and grief counseling, as well as funds to assist with burial costs.
“What we can create together today is common sense, it’s humane…it’s overdue,” Ridley-Thomas said.
The county’s new approach was developed by an ad hoc committee of the Civilian Oversight Commission (COC) and inspired by the Youth Justice Coalition’s (YJC) Family Bill of Rights, according to COC members.
“We were all moved by the stories and testimonies of members of our communities who have lost loved ones,” said COC Executive Director Brian Williams. “The creation of the Family Assistance Program illustrates how when we listen to one another, dialogue and collectively work together, good things can happen. This is a great example of the work that the commission is capable of.”
The Department of Mental Health will hire family assistance advocates to notify families and coordinate other resources in the wake of a deputy-involved shooting or in custody death.
Sheriff’s officials have historically handled notifications and families have complained that they hear about their loved ones’ death from neighbors or a news report before anyone from the Sheriff’s Department calls. A lack of information and conflicting reports are also common complaints.
Patti Giggans, who chairs the Civilian Oversight Commission, said families “were dismissed, ignored, stigmatized and just left to fend for themselves.”
Williams said distrust of officials is heightened by concerns about how the dead are portrayed in media reports relying on law enforcement sources.
“To not sully the name of the fallen is important,” he said.
“Kim McGill, a YJC organizer, spoke on behalf of families unable to attend the meeting and reminded the board of the 2003 fatal shooting of Deandre Brunston in Willowbrook.
Deputies said Brunston told them he had a gun and threatened to kill them, but the 24-year-old turned out to be holding a black sandal with a silver buckle rather than a weapon. A sheriff’s dog in the line of fire was also shot by deputies.
McGill said deputies kicked Brunston “to see if he was still alive” and never provided medical aid, but airlifted the dog to Norwalk for medical treatment. Deputies later held a well-attended memorial for the 9-year-old Belgian Malinois, while no one from the department bothered to meet with Brunston’s family or members of the community, according to McGill.
Advocates have sometimes antagonized board members and shouted down officials at meetings of the COC and other agencies. But at this meeting, they were almost unanimously supportive.
A total of 207 people died in custody or in incidents involving lethal use of force by deputies over the five years prior to a September 2018 COC report on the issue. Funding for burial costs under the Family Assistance Program is based on an estimated 24-40 incidents annually.