Wife of LASD deputy who died by suicide files claim against department

The widow of a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputy is considering legal action after her husband died by suicide.

Arturo Atilano-Valdez was one of four department employees to die by suicide in a 24-hour span in early November.

Arturo’s wife, Michele Atilano, said for years that her husband had complained about long hours at work and stressful jail conditions. She claims he didn’t receive the necessary support or help from his employers that could’ve saved his life.

“My daughters cry every night when they go to sleep,” Michele said. “It’s just me and my daughters left now.”

The grieving widow is speaking out as she recalls the day her husband died.

She said Arturo was home one night, sitting on the couch. She and her daughters were in their bedrooms when they heard a single pop that sounded like fireworks.

It was gunfire. Arturo had fatally shot himself.

Upon the gruesome discovery, Michelle said she threw a blanket over her husband, who was still bleeding, and quickly tried to shield his body from their daughters.

She claims her husband was struggling with stress due to working excessive overtime hours at the county jail. She claimed the hours were mandatory.

“The public is not safe,” Michele said. “All you have are a bunch of deputies who are zombies — zombies walking around tired, always tired. They’re not even there. How are they going to save lives?”

Arturo is one of four LASD employees who died by suicide in a 24-hour time span. Three were active-duty personnel and one was a retired member.

According to the Los Angeles Times, one of the victims was 25-year career veteran Cmdr. Darren Harris, who was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on Nov. 6. Another victim, retired Sgt. Greg Hovland, was discovered just hours later.

LASD officials confirm at least eight suicides were reported within the department in 2023.

The recent cases have placed the issue of mental health in the spotlight along with questions surrounding stress levels on the job and whether employees are overworked.

“The deputies are working so much overtime that it’s literally causing death,” said Brad Gage, Michele’s attorney.

Gage has filed a claim in court ahead of a possible lawsuit on behalf of the Atilano-Valdez family. They’re demanding changes within the department regarding mandatory overtime policies while also pushing for stronger mental health resources for employees.

“Their conscious disregard of the safety and rights of the employees is part of the lawsuit,” Gage said.

L.A. County Sheriff Robert Luna said he’s making it a priority to ensure proper services are available to all employees, including a multi-phase plan to reduce overtime. It’s something Luna said he had been working on before the increase in suicides was reported.

“That is not acceptable,” Luna said of the deaths at a presser. “At the end of the day, it is our job, my job, to make sure that we have the services available to our employees.”

LASD employees currently have access to 24-hour crisis support, as well as two full-time sworn deputies who assist with substance resource programs and offer peer support.

“Our bureau currently employs more than 20 full-time licensed psychologists that specialize in police psychology,” said Dr. Steve Seetal, LASD’s Director of Psychological Services Bureau.

In addition, department employees are provided with free counseling, as well as counseling for couples and families.

The factors that led to the suicides are still under investigation, but the Sheriff’s Department has confirmed it is struggling with a staffing crisis — shorthanded by hundreds of deputies — which places more strain on current employees.

“If you get in that dark spot, it can be detrimental,” said Retired Santa Monica police officer Cristina Coria, who has endured her own physical and mental trauma.

After being shot in the line of duty, Coria has been a vocal advocate for mental health assistance, especially in the early stages of struggle.

“What we do to help officers when they go through a trauma or they’re going through injury, or whatever they’re going through, we make sure we get ahold of them in the right amount of time,” she said.

LASD responded to a request for comment on the case, saying:

“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.”

If you or anyone you know is struggling with mental health or thoughts of suicide, help is available 24 hours a day through the nationwide mental health crisis hotline. You can call or text 988 to be connected with a professional.

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