A family called 911 for son’s mental health crisis. They say deputies beat and Tasered him to death
Blanca Briceno said she wakes up many nights with the images in her head: Several Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies pinning down and striking her son Eric in his bedroom, his face full of blood.
She had called the police one day in March to help her son, who was in the midst of a mental health crisis. But by the end, he’d been beaten and Tasered to death. At one point, she said, deputies grabbed her phone when she tried to film what was happening.
“We called them to come and help us, to get some help,” Briceno said, choking up during an interview at her Maywood home. “And instead, they came and killed him, brutally killed him.”
Eric Briceno’s death has not made headlines or triggered protests during this moment of unrest across the nation over police brutality. The incident occurred inside the family’s home, and the autopsy wasn’t released to their attorney until last week.
In their report, obtained by The Times, coroner’s officials concluded that Briceno, 39, died of cardiopulmonary arrest, resulting from neck compression and restraint with a Taser. The death was ruled a homicide, although the designation doesn’t mean it was intentional or a crime.
The Briceno family last month filed a wrongful-death claim, a precursor to a lawsuit, against the Sheriff’s Department and is calling for prosecutors to charge the deputies involved.
“He didn’t die a natural death,” said Briceno’s father, Juan. “He died because of police brutality.”
The Sheriff’s Department declined to comment, citing an ongoing investigation into the incident. Sheriff’s investigators have not yet presented a case to prosecutors, who will review the materials and decide whether deputies committed a crime, the district attorney’s office said.
According to the autopsy report, investigators told coroner’s officials that when deputies responded to a call that Eric Briceno had assaulted his father, he “attacked the deputies” and resisted arrest.
Eric began showing symptoms of mental illness in high school and was diagnosed with mild schizophrenia, the family’s claim says. He self-medicated with street drugs and spent time in jail. Most recently, he was on probation and receiving treatment through the L.A. County Department of Mental Health.
On March 16, the claim said, Eric had an altercation with his father and left the home as his parents called 911. Deputies arrived and told the parents to call them back when their son returned, which they did.
Eric Briceno — 6 feet tall and weighing nearly 300 pounds, records show — was in his room sleeping when deputies arrived, his mother said. She said she told deputies she would call him out of his bedroom because she didn’t want the deputies to go in. They went in anyway, she said, startling her son.
Blanca Briceno said the deputies began beating Eric without provocation, kneeling on his back and hitting him with a baton.
“They went, ‘Eric, Eric!’ So he got scared,” his mother said. “He wasn’t doing anything; he wasn’t aggressive, nothing.”
One deputy fired a Taser, striking him, and another discharged pepper spray in the room. Meanwhile, Eric cried out that he could not breathe, his mother and the claim said.
Blanca Briceno said she pleaded for the deputies to stop. When she took out her phone to record, she said, a deputy took it away, telling her she couldn’t speak to anyone because they might convince her to change her story. She was pushed out of the room and into a cabinet, the claim said.
Eric Briceno was punched, pepper-sprayed and shot with a Taser seven or eight times, the autopsy report said.
Deputies reported that before being transported to the hospital, Briceno had turned blue, according to the autopsy report. Medical examiners found methamphetamine in his system, which contributed to but was not the immediate cause of his death.
Samuel Paz, an attorney representing the Briceno family, said he reviewed hospital records and those of emergency responders, and it doesn’t appear that members of the sheriff’s Mental Evaluation Team responded to the incident.
Members of the team usually roll out in pairs: a deputy and a licensed mental health clinician trained to de-escalate and avoid the use of force. In 2019, the agency’s 33 teams responded to more than half the 10,425 patrol calls involving mentally ill or cognitively impaired people in crises, a Sheriff’s Department report said.
The report found that during 431 mental health incidents in 2019, the supervisor at the scene believed it “very likely” that deputies would have used force to subdue patients if not for team members arriving to defuse the situation.
Spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, many are calling for some of these responsibilities to be removed from law enforcement and for other public community and support services to be expanded. In Los Angeles, for example, the City Council is exploring a new emergency response that uses trained specialists, rather than Los Angeles police officers, to render aid to homeless people and those suffering from mental health and substance abuse issues.
As Eric Briceno was taken to the hospital, deputies took his parents to the East L.A. station, where they were questioned by investigators; neither knew whether their son was still alive. After the interview, the Bricenos said, investigators returned and told them: We have some bad news — he didn’t make it.
Paz said Eric Briceno was declared dead within eight minutes of arriving at the hospital.
In a letter dated a month after the incident, the district attorney’s office expressed condolences to the Bricenos for their loss. The letter used language that the Bricenos felt added insult to injury, referencing prosecutors’ review of “the shooting.”
“There was no shooting,” Blanca Briceno said. “There’s a lot of people like this … screaming for help. And they deserve to live and get the help they need. My son didn’t deserve this.”
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