Police and sheriff's deputies on Sunday disputed a civil rights group's claim that officers are callous in dealing with relatives of homicide victims, including criminal suspects killed in officer-involved shootings.
"Everybody is very sensitive in making the notifications, regardless of the circumstances," said Los Angeles Police Department Homicide Detective Jim Wegman. "Whether it's a death notification in a non-homicide case or a death due to a homicide, it's one of the most difficult things to do."
Police and sheriff's detectives interviewed Sunday said that notifying relatives is generally left to the discretion of homicide investigators. However, the LAPD has a policy in police-involved shootings to let the coroner's office notify relatives, said coroner's supervisor of investigations L. Shelton.
"Several years ago the Police Department asked that in officer-involved deaths that we make the notification," Shelton said. "You might imagine what could happen if an officer went to the door and told the people there that their son has just been killed by police, regardless of the circumstances."
About a dozen relatives of people killed in officer-involved shootings who attended a rally sponsored by the Chicago-based Equal Rights Congress on Saturday were critical of law enforcement officers who they claim are often too quick to pull the trigger. The group, which renewed the call for civilian review panels to investigate officer-involved shootings, was particularly upset at what it termed callous treatment of the surviving family by police.
One woman said Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies did not notify her of her son's death for nine hours and quoted a deputy who visited her home as saying, "You all didn't know? It was on the 6 o'clock news."
Another woman said she learned of her son's death at a local hospital from an Inglewood police officer who said the body was sent to the county morgue because the coroner's investigator was busy and "we wanted to save him a trip."
Members of the congress said there have been more than 1,000 officer-involved shootings in Los Angeles County since 1979, and yet there have been only four prosecutions of police officers.
LAPD spokesman Cmdr. William Booth said the possibility of forming a civilian review board has been debated on occasions for several years. He said, however, that the civilian Police Commission reviews department policies and all police shootings, regardless of whether a person is hit by a round from a service revolver. The D.A.'s office rollout team, he added, conducts independent investigations into all incidents in which a person is killed or wounded by a police bullet.
District attorney spokesman Al Albergate acknowledged that there have been "relatively few prosecutions of officers in officer-involved shootings."
"This criticism comes up periodically," Albergate said. "It (rollout team) wasn't set up to go after police officers, but to have the shootings reviewed by an agency outside the Police Department, to assure that somebody was watching how things were done."
Booth said an attempt is made to notify relatives as tactfully and quickly as possible.
"In terms of it being done compassionately . . . it has been the practice in the 32 years I've been on the force," Booth said. "I've never known of anyone who has done it in less than a compassionate manner.
"But there really is no easy way to tell a family that a loved one is dead. It hits hard."
No Recent Complaints
Police Commissioner Barbara Schlei said the nine-member civilian board that oversees police policies has not received any recent complaints of impropriety by officers in notifying relatives.
Schlei disputed allegations of police callousness, noting as example the death of 71-year-old Murphy Pierson, who was accidently shot and killed by Los Angeles police last month when he walked onto his front porch with a shotgun to confront two young men he believed were selling drugs on his front lawn.
"Chief (Daryl F.) Gates himself went down and consoled the family," Schlei said.
Schlei said the commission and the Police Department have an "exemplary record" in investigating police-involved shootings.
"That does not mean that we cannot fall short of our high standards in this regard," Schlei said. "And when we do we expect the public and the media to bring it to our attention."
'It's Always Tough'
Deputy Steve Lee with the Sheriff's Information Bureau said he did not know if the department had a written policy on notification of relatives, adding: "I've had to do it a lot. It's always tough."
Inglewood Police Lt. Susan Cox said homicide investigators are given the discretion on "when, how and by whom the notification is made."