The widow of adeputy who was one of four current or former department employees to die of suicide on the same day is filing a $20 million damages claim against the department.
Michele Atilano, the wife of 49-year-old LASD Deputy Arturo Atilano-Valdez who died by suicide in November has filed a claim both against the department and Los Angeles County, alleging that mandatory overtime policies are leading to mental health problems among staffers.
"Working him, overtime, overtime, overtime," Atilano said at a news conference hosted by her attorney Brad Gage. "Walking like zombies everywhere. My husband was present but he was walking like a zombie."
She said the department's ways need to change after she and her two daughters had their lives changed on Nov. 7, when her husband and three other people connected to the department died by suicide within a 24-hour period.
"They do not care how many hours these deputies work," Atilano said.
Deputy Atilano was reportedly forced to remain working in county jails for more than a decade, often times working 12 hours per day or longer where hew as "locked in like a prisoner," the claim said. It also noted that the deputy was forced to work mandatory overtime, and requests for transfer out of the jails were denied.
All of these factors contributed to a growing depression that ultimately led him to shoot himself, the claim says.
"My husband's not gonna see our daughters drive or get married," Atilano said. "My daughters cry every night."
She says that she spoke with Sheriff Robert Luna at the hospital after her husband's death.
"I told him that double, single, double, single — they do not care how many hours these deputies work," she said. "He doesn't even know how much overtime he gives them. I want to know how many have committed suicide this year because my husband was just one of many, many that are still sick in the jails being forced to work all the time."
Luna issued a statement at the time, which read:
"Our LASD family has experienced a significant amount of loss and tragedies this year. We are stunned to learn of these deaths, and it has sent shockwaves of emotions throughout the department as we try and cope with the loss of not just one, but four beloved active and retired members of our department family.
During trying times like these it's important for personnel regardless of rank or position to check on the well-being of other colleagues and friends. I have the deepest concern for our employee's well-being, and we are urgently exploring avenues to reduce work stress factors to support our employees' work and personal lives."
Atilano's claim comes days after a similar damages claim was filed by the family of Deputy Ryan Clinkunbroomer, who was killed in an ambush style shooting back in September in Palmdale.
They contend that on top of his normal 40 hours, he had worked 69 hours of overtime in the two weeks prior to his killing, leaving him worn down and lowering his situational awareness, leaving him more susceptible to the brazen ambush.
Loyola Law School Professor Laurie Levenson says that the claims are very difficult on the filing parties.
"The problem for these claims is that California Case law makes it very difficult for someone to win," she said. "The state, the county, have immunity."
On top of their established immunity, the families face another uphill battle.
"I think it's extremely challenging for a lawyer to prove there's a connection between the overtime and the suicide" Levenson said. "There could be so many other cases."
Atilano's attorney says that the deputy was also facing discrimination, which presents exceptions to the establish immunity.
"He was over 40, he had disabilities, he was Latino," Gage said. "All those seem to contribute the department not allowing him to move to other locations."
Los Angeles County has 30 days to respond to the claims before a lawsuit can officially be filed.
On Friday, LASD issued a statement on the claim, which read:
"A loss of a department family member is extremely tragic and our continued thoughts are with the family during this difficult time. The department has not received the official claim, but is deeply committed to ensuring the well-being and safety of all its employees. The department values its personnel who are dedicated professionals who work tirelessly to keep our communities safe."
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