Great Read: These people volunteered to be there for the worst moments in someone’s life
The woman won’t look away from the dark huddle of uniforms standing behind a yellow police tape barrier that flaps back and forth in an occasional breeze. There, on the other side of this South Los Angeles parking lot, her brother is lying, still.
Two men in suits approach her. Their expressions signal bad news. Their words confirm it: Earlier in the night, her brother was shot in the head and killed.
Barbara de Lima, a grandmotherly figure with curly white hair, stands beside the family as they talk to the detectives. When a family member begins to cry, de Lima gives her a water bottle along with soothing words of comfort. The woman falls onto her, and de Lima cradles her head on her shoulder, calling her “honey.”
In her blue polo shirt bearing the crest of the city of Los Angeles, de Lima is part of a team of 250 Angelenos who are dispatched alongside police and firefighters to the site of almost every death in the city: shootings, car accidents, suicides, fires and natural deaths.
And they do it all — drive across the city in the middle of the night, linger at dangerous homicide scenes — for free.
Operated out of L.A. City Hall, the volunteer service is designed to comfort those the police usually pay the least attention to: “surviving victims,” the family and friends who have to go on with their lives after disaster strikes.
“We’re dealing with people at the worst moment of their lives,” says Joe Avalos, the team’s director.
A daughter asked to identify a father with a bullet through his head. Parents who must plan a funeral for their toddler. A husband coming home to an apartment he’s never slept in alone.
“One of these cases, it’ll humble you like that,” Avalos says, snapping his fingers.
“To your knees,” de Lima adds.
“To your knees,” Avalos repeats, softer.
Joan Davis puts on her glasses and begins to read a letter.
April 1, 1992.
Dear Mrs. Davis,
On the evening of March 22nd, two couples had just finished dinner at a San Pedro Restaurant. They were crossing the street to get to their car when without warning three of the four people were struck by a speeding car. One person died immediately and a second passed away a few days later. The third person hit by the car remained in critical condition for several days. The husband of this person was not hit by the car, but as you can probably imagine was in shock after seeing his wife and two close friends struck down by the hit and run driver.
The letter was written by LAPD Capt. Tim King and goes on to identify what he sees as a problem: Among the city’s myriad emergency responders, no outfit provides immediate emotional support to victims’ family members. In this case, King worries about the husband.
His needs, although not physical, were as important as the three victims that had been hit by the car.
King then explains that he’s creating a volunteer group that will offer this aid, and invites Davis to join.
Davis — at the time, part of the police-clergy council at the LAPD’s Harbor Division in San Pedro — showed up at King’s introductory training session. Held 23 years ago this month, it was the first meeting of what would become the Crisis Response Team.
“And I’ve been with the team consistently ever since,” says Davis, now 71. One of the earliest members of the program, she used to wear a badge with "#2" next to her name.
As it’s grown over the decades, the team has attracted people from all walks of life. Those who’ve suffered a loss and want to help others cope; nurses and charity workers looking for another way to give back; people seeking a kind of civic engagement where the rubber really hits the road.
In the trunks of their cars, volunteers keep duffel bags packed with water bottles, granola bars, blankets and teddy bears. Some bring a change of clothes they can offer to people who’ve just watched their homes burn down. Anything that might make someone feel comfortable — or, at the very least, less uncomfortable.
Davis says it’s gratifying to help people when they’re at their most vulnerable.
“Sometimes what they need is a very calm, quiet person to be there,” Davis says. “Their world has suddenly gone spinning totally out of control, and we can sit there with them.”
When de Lima pulls up to the dark Taco Bell parking lot in Jefferson Park, she takes out a small flower print notebook and starts writing. She wants to know what information the rest of the team has gathered so far.
Shooting. Possibly gang-related. The victim’s cousin may be among the crowd down the street.
Police officials are a few steps away, on the other side of the police tape barrier, gathered around a white canopy that covers the body.
The volunteer team of six — members always travel in pairs to scenes — decide to force their way into a group of people around the corner on Crenshaw Boulevard. The coroner hasn’t officially identified the body, and volunteers are looking for people who may be related to the victim.
It’s just before 10 p.m. on a Saturday. People push against the tape, hungry for information. One of the volunteers pulls a possible relative from the crowd.
Shortly after, a large group of other family members show up in a van. They’d heard someone had been shot.
The volunteers talk to the relatives about what to expect as they wait for the police to confirm the victim’s identity. Some sit beside them on the curb. One responder gets a cup of coffee for the victim’s 21-year-old daughter, who’s still in a dress she wore earlier in the day to go to a street fair.
A crew wielding a TV camera tries to approach the dead man’s sister. Avalos quickly steps in, telling her she has no obligation to talk to the media. He can move her away, he says.
De Lima, who’s been on the team for two decades, appears comfortable at crime scenes, usually making small talk or laughing at a joke she’s cracked. She advises newer volunteers to make themselves look as unofficial as possible. Everyone else in uniforms seems threatening; you want to seem like a friend or a neighbor. “Put the clipboard away — you’re not an insurance adjuster,” de Lima tells a younger responder.
Volunteers help family members sort out details, such as contacting the city attorney’s office, or notifying the school district that kids won’t be attending class the next day.
And though they’re right in the middle of everything, team members prefer to disappear into the background. And they do.
“They probably won’t remember your face, or your name,” Avalos says, “but they won’t forget someone was there next to them.”
Police who’ve arrived at a crime scene struggle to walk away from people who are suffering, says LAPD Capt. John Romero. Family members might be crying or in shock about a loved one’s death, but “you have to go on to the next call, you have to go pursue the suspect, lift the prints, you have a job to do,” he says.
When the Crisis Response Team shows up, “they step in so you can continue to do your job,” he says.
Most major cities on the West Coast have similar programs. The oldest, in San Diego, predates Los Angeles’ by a few years.
But unlike other cities whose programs are run by nonprofits or churches, L.A.'s team is operated by the city government.
Avalos, L.A.'s program director who works out of City Hall, says people are always surprised that the volunteers are from the mayor’s office.
“That’s what I love about it,” he says. An unusually human vein of a big, bureaucratic institution, it’s “like a gift” from the city, he says.
On average, L.A.'s team responds to about one call a day. Team members do three 12-hour, on-call shifts a month. To join the program, volunteers go through rounds of applications and interviews followed by months of training.
At a recent graduation of new responders, L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti praised the program, saying he thinks it strengthens the city’s civic fabric.
“The work that you do is the difference between whether people break and stay broken, or whether they can heal and come back together — the angels, in the City of Angels,” he said.
Crisis Response Team volunteers often prepare family members for what they call the “death squad,” the detectives who march up to families to confirm the identity of the body.
On this night, de Lima says she knows they’re coming because she saw a flash of light in the corner of the parking lot. That means they took a photo that’ll be shown to the family to verify his identity.
“This is horrible. This is as bad as it gets,” de Lima says.
Under the orange light of the parking lot lamps, detectives open up their folders and relay the bad news. Volunteers stand by, giving family members tissues and information about how to contact the coroner.
Eventually, the police cars leave. Volunteers lift up the tape so the black-and-white vehicles can drive under it, on to the next call.
The crowd of onlookers dissipates.
Then the family pile into their van, swing the door shut and drive away.
It’s quiet, the middle of the night. The parking lot no longer looks like a crime scene.
The volunteers are the only ones left. They’re always the last to leave.
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