Crime & Justice

LA County Supervisors approve $1.85 million payout in fatal shooting of mentally ill woman

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has revised its training for officers who respond to incidents involving mentally ill people.
The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department has revised its training for officers who respond to incidents involving mentally ill people.
Christopher Okula/KPCC

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Update: LA County Supervisors will pay $1.85 Million to family of mentally ill woman shot and killed by deputies

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday agreed to a $1.85 million settlement to end a lawsuit brought by the family of a woman killed by sheriff's deputies in 2012. Citing the "risks and uncertainties of the litigation," L.A.'s County Counsel recommended a payout in the case.

Jayzmine Eng, 40, died in the lobby of a mental health clinic in Reseda. Her family's attorney said she was there seeking help after going off her medication to treat schizophrenia. Wielding a hammer, the diminutive woman took a step towards a deputy, prompting another to open fire.

The incident led to internal discipline of the deputies involved in the confrontation. It also led to changes to the training program for L.A. County sheriff's deputies on how to interact with people who are in mental health crisis.

Monday, Feb. 17: LA County Supervisors to consider settlement in fatal shooting of mentally ill woman

On Tuesday, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to consider a $1.845 million payout to the family of a mentally ill woman shot to death by sheriff's deputies.

The 2012 incident touched on a common occurrence around the country — officers shooting people who are in mental health crisis — and inspired changes to how the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department trains deputies.

"We don't know what fraction of shootings [by law enforcement officers] involve mentally disturbed individuals," said David Klinger, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis and a former Los Angeles Police Department officer. But from studies he's seen, Klinger said somewhere around 20 percent nationwide is a good guess.

Klinger has a project underway with the LAPD to review years worth of officer-involved shootings in an effort to detect any patterns. He says it's unfortunate there are no real statistics available, but anecdotally, there are major issues when police encounter suicidal people or those in some other type of emotional crisis.

"Since I got involved in law enforcement thirty-some years ago, concern about figuring out ways to deal with people who are in emotional or mental crisis was big back then and it's become more of an issue now," he said.

Awareness of the issue has increased, Klinger said.

"Just in terms of the realization that there are ways to handle these things — many times, but not all the time — without having to resort to any serious use of force," Klinger said.

In the case the Board of Supervisors will review for settlement Tuesday, the deputies' response escalated to gunshots.

The incident took place in January 2012, when four L.A. County sheriff's deputies responded to a radio call about a mentally-ill woman, Jazmyn Ha Eng, wielding a hammer in the lobby of a mental health clinic. 

According to the Eng family's attorney, Robbert Finnerty, Eng had schizophrenia and had stopped taking her medication. Finnerty said Eng had been treated at the clinic before, and even volunteered there.

"She knew she was having trouble off her medication, so she went back to the clinic, which was not an unusual situation," Finnerty said. 

According to the Office of Independent Review's analysis of the event, deputies arrived on scene and began formulating a plan to deal with the woman, when they heard a shout from the lobby guard.

The deputies rushed into the lobby and found "the four-feet nine-inch tall, ninety-pound woman standing near the back wall with a ball peen hammer over her head," the report said.

After ordering Eng to drop the hammer, to no effect, one deputy deployed a taser, apparently also to little effect.

The deputies "then saw her take a step toward" the deputy who'd fired his taser "with the hammer raised over her head," the report said. "Observing the woman's actions and fearing for the safety of his partner," a second deputy "fired two rounds fatally striking the woman." She died at the scene.

While the L.A. County's district attorney found the deputies acted within the law, the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's internal review process found fault with their tactics, as did the Office of Investigative Review.

The internal review board found the two deputies who used force "rushed their actions and failed to employ sound tactical principles before engaging the woman." 

The OIR said they should have evacuated the lobby and called in a supervisor and the department's mental evaluation team, which is trained for such incidents.

The department removed the deputies from field duty and sent them for training. The deputy who shot Eng is also on "Departmental Performance Review" for two years. (He had never been involved in a shooting in his 16-year career.)

In addition, the OIR recommended that before the deputy returns to the field, he should receive "additional training that addresses how to deal with the mentally ill population."

The Sheriff's Department says the incident changed how they train deputies.

Sheriff's Captain Mike Parker said the department has had a "significant increase in the amount of training related to interacting with people experiencing mental health crisis" in the past two years.

For instance, the department now holds monthly training sessions at the station involved in the Eng incident, as well as other patrol stations around the county.

Finnerty said it's unfortunate that deputies didn't utilize available resources in Eng's case. He said Eng's family hopes her case will help educate law enforcement and the public "as to how we have to deal with all the citizens of our state."

"They survived the killing fields in Cambodia to come to the U.S. and raise four children, and send them all to college," Finnerty said. "And then for this to happen, it's not the kind of tragedy you want anyone to experience."

This story has been updated.