After three active-duty personnel and one retired member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department died by suspected suicides in a 24-hour span last week, sending “shockwaves of emotions” through the local law enforcement community, Sheriff Robert Luna is speaking openly about the need for mental health treatment among his ranks.
While the sheriff’s department has yet to identify the employees or confirm that their deaths were self-inflicted, the Los Angeles Times cites numerous sources who agreed to talk about the suicides on the condition of anonymity.
The first victim was discovered Nov. 6 at around 10:30 a.m. in Valencia. A little more than two hours later, at 12:53 p.m., LASD detectives responded to another death in Lancaster and a third at 5:40 p.m. in Stevenson Ranch. The fourth victim was discovered Tuesday at around 7:30 a.m. in a Pomona hospital.
“They’re suffering,” Sheriff Luna said of the men and women in his department. “This is an incredible loss.”
According to the Times, the first victim discovered was 25-year career veteran Cmdr. Darren Harris, who was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound that morning. The second victim was retired Sgt. Greg Hovland, who was discovered just hours later.
“We lost a Sheriff’s Commander, a Deputy Sheriff, a Custody Assistant and a retired employee, who are as just an important part of our family as anybody else,” Luna told KTLA’s Kareen Wynter.
Asked if the department has ever suffered a similar tragedy, the sheriff said no.
“As far as our records reflect, we have not seen anything like this,” he responded.
Another unprecedented problem is LASD’s suicide rates in 2023, with nine deaths reported so far.
While Luna said he was unable to comment on the specifics of the four cases, investigators do not believe that the four suspected suicides are connected. The deaths are being investigated by homicide detectives and the County of Los Angeles Medical Examiner.
“We will dissect each individual employee’s case and what we’re doing is we’re looking for patterns, trends of any kind for the sole purpose of prevention,” the sheriff added.
That prevention, according to Luna, starts with ensuring department personnel have the resources and services needed to address mental health issues and employee wellness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that first responders, particularly law enforcement and firefighters, “are more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.”
“Our bureau currently employs more than 20 full-time licensed psychologists that specialize in police psychology,” Dr. Steve Seetal, LASD’s Director of Psychological Services Bureau, said.
Dr. Seetal explained that employees 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. In addition, department employees are also provided with free, confidential counseling, as well as counseling for couples and families.
The factors that led to the most recent tragedies are unclear, but LASD is currently in a staffing crisis. The department says it’s shorthanded by hundreds of deputies, which places more strain on employees.
“If you get in that dark spot, it can be detrimental,” Retired Santa Monica police officer Cristina Coria, who has endured her own physical and mental trauma, told KTLA.
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 a hold of them in the right amount of time,” she said.
Sheriff Luna said he’s unsure if law enforcement agencies have talked about suicide and mental health as openly as the discussion that’s being had now.
“It’s difficult, they’re not easy things to talk about,” he said. “That reduces that stigma and pushing employees to just seek help.”
Luna added that areas like employee workloads, staffing and mandatory overtime policies are being examined with an eye toward improving the work environment and the emotional wellness of all the department’s employees.