Alicia Alvarez found out that her son was shot to death when she heard from friends and then later on the news, and even then the details weren’t clear.
Her son, 20-year-old Jonathan Cuevas was shot by Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Deputies when he fled from a police stop early in the morning of Oct. 10, 2010. The deputies claimed Cuevas had been reaching for a gun.
Friends and eyewitnesses told a different story. “Something told me in my heart that something was very wrong, because it was totally opposite of what the Sheriff’s homicide [detectives] told us,” Alvarez told a journalist two years later.
Although internal police investigators said the shooting was justified, the family launched a wrongful death lawsuit against the county. In 2013, the family was awarded $875,000.
But the fallout from Cuevas’ death also included concerns raised by the fact that the family had adequate or misleading information.
In the last three years, more than 100 people have died during incidents involving use of force by deputies in the field, or while in the custody of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.
As in the Cuevas case, families of those who died in police custody are often told very little about their loved one’s deaths, and they get little support in the aftermath.
Last week, the County of Los Angeles Board of Supervisors moved to fill this gap with passage of a motion to establish the Family Assistance Program. The program is designed to support families following an in-custody death or fatal use of force.
They heard testimony from several families, WitnessLA reported after the meeting.
Jacob Jackson told the board that his mother found out about her son’s death in 1994 from a message left on her answering machine.
“She asked for help from the police,” he said. “(But) they ignored her,” Jackson said.
Supervisor Hilda Solis described a more recent story about the family of an 18-year-old killed by law enforcement a few days before the meeting, and the county’s subsequent “failure to provide compassionate communication and services to the family.”
“I’ve heard the same things related over and over again from family,” She continued. “And in this case, what we have heard over and over again is that the family heard about the death through a network, and not through county resources, that they were confused and upset by the wait time to go and see their deceased loved one, and that they were deeply concerned about how he was portrayed in the media regarding his death.”
This family “really needed support and follow-up services”–services that Solis said needed to be addressed by county’s Department of Mental Health.
“We were all moved by the stories and testimonies of members of our communities who have lost loved ones,” said Brian K. Williams, Executive Director of the Civilian Oversight Commission (CCOC), in a press statement announcing the plan.
“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.”
Many programs around the country address the needs of crime victims and survivors. New York State, for example, funds the cost of burials for homicide victims. But the Los Angeles program may be the first that caters specifically to families whose loved ones have died in police custody or as a result of police actions.
The July 9 motion, authored by board members Mark Ridley-Thomas and Sheila Kuehl, called for the creation of a “…multi-disciplinary Family Assistance Program aimed at improving compassionate communication with and providing trauma-informed support to families who have lost a loved one in an LASD-related incident.”
The program will deploy a multi-disciplinary team “well versed” in the areas of mental health care, trauma-informed support, and financial support (including help with burial services) according to the press statement.
In the statement, Patti Giggans, chair of the L.A. County Civilian Oversight Commission (CCOC), said the program would address “gaps” in services to families stricken by tragedy.
“The multi-disciplinary Family Assistance Program,….will provide grieving families with timely information and a warm hand off to services,” she added.
The Family Assistance Program outline would not have been complete without the valid input from individuals and families that lost their loved ones because of in-custody death or fatal use of force.
This motion also directs the Los Angeles County Director of Mental Health to “hire Family Assistance Advocates (FAAs) to act as the primary liaison for families grieving the loss of their loved one.”
Each FAA in the program will be responsible for communicating timely updates to families about their loved one’s death, helping families navigate the county’s legal process, identifying resources that may be available to them, including funds to assist with burial costs, and providing crisis intervention, stabilization and grief counseling, according to the motion.
The proposed $437,000 budget will earmark funds to hire one clinical psychologist and a psychiatric social worker per FAA unit, as well as provide four clinicians and a service car.
That would help families avoid the challenges faced by the Cuevas family, which was forced to hold car washes to pay for Jonathan’s burial, according to Kim McGill of the Youth Justice Coalition in Los Angeles.
The CCOC committee developed a package of recommendations for the sheriff’s department.
The recommendations included:
- Establishment of a multi-disciplinary team able to provide support, resources and transparent communication to families;
- Continuous “trauma-informed training” for all Sheriff’s Department personnel who work with family members.
The official CEO report calls for the trauma-informed training to help sheriff’s deputies gain further insight regarding grief counseling, learn about how to communicate unforeseen news, and learn how each individual may react to receiving devastating details involving their loved ones.
They will also change the training from occurring once every two years to “regular trainings.”
Current California state law does not recognize or treat the family members/survivors of fatal law enforcement uses of force as “victims.”
This means the families aren’t given access the same restitution opportunities as other recognized victims. The CCOC recommends this be changed.
The program will also develop pamphlets along with 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.”
The pamphlet, as well as the online platform, will be specifically created for the family members of those who were involved in fatal uses of force or in-custody deaths. It’s aimed to outline the specific protocols that follow each incident.
Andrea Cipriano is a TCR news intern.