The family of a mental health patient fatally shot by a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy inside Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in October 2020 sued the county and sheriff’s department Friday for wrongful death and civil rights violations, alleging the shooting was a “senseless and unwarranted act of police abuse.”
Nicholas Burgos Jr., 38, of South Los Angeles, who had been shot multiple times, died on Nov. 1, 2020, nearly a month after the shooting, which occurred during a mental health crisis after he used a piece of steel medical equipment to shatter a hospital window, then smashed his way into a room where an injured deputy was recovering, sheriff’s officials alleged.
The department had no immediate comment Friday.
Burgos’ sister, Maria, said outside Harbor-UCLA Medical Center on Friday that her brother was initially brought to the medical center because he needed help.
“We brought him here because he needed help,” Burgos said through tears. “We thought he was going to be safe in this hospital.”
According to the suit, filed in Los Angeles federal court on behalf of Burgos’ mother and son, the Oct. 6, 2020, shooting marked the second time in recent years that law enforcement officers killed a patient at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.
In 2015, a Los Angeles Police Department officer fatally shot 26-year-old Ruben Herrara at the hospital while he allegedly fought with officers and reached for one of their weapons.
A federal jury sided with Herrara’s parents two years later, ordering the city to pay them $3.9 million in compensation.
Along with the county, the sheriff’s department and unidentified officials, the Burgos lawsuit names as defendants the Department of Health Services and sheriff’s Deputy Dalia Gonzalez, who fired the fatal shots at Burgos, according to the lawsuit.
The plaintiffs contend that Gonzalez, rather than formulating a plan to avoid contact with Burgos while he was having a psychiatric episode, “carelessly and negligently contacted Mr. Burgos and escalated and agitated his mental health crisis by yelling at him, pointing her firearm at him and engaging in other conduct which escalated Mr. Burgos’ mental health emergency.”
After coming into contact with Burgos, Gonzalez “made yelled threats of violence at Mr. Burgos to attempt to intimidate him from asserting his constitutional rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. Thereafter, in retaliation, she fired several gunshots in the hospital hallway at Mr. Burgos, striking him and causing him severe injuries,” the lawsuit alleges.
Arnoldo Casillas, the Burgos family attorney, contends that the county and its sheriff’s and health services departments “have failed to develop and implement policies, procedures and training regarding the use of deadly force and proper tactics for dealing with mentally ill patients during psychotic episodes,” according to the complaint.
“As a result of the absences of these policies, procedures and training, the sheriff’s deputy involved in the underlying incident was not prepared to safely deal with the circumstances and improperly used unnecessary and unreasonable force against mentally ill patients like Nicholas Burgos,” the suit alleges.
About a week after the shooting, sheriff’s Lt. Derrick Alfred told reporters that two deputies from the South Los Angeles Station were inside the room guarding the injured deputy when a man later identified as Burgos — who was suffering from a psychiatric episode — lunged at one of them while holding the steel object above his head.
“The deputy stepped into the threshold to prevent the male patient from entering the room,” Alfred said.
“She repeatedly told the male patient to put the object down. The male patient was still holding the metal device above his head, lunged forward toward the deputy and a deputy-involved shooting occurred.”
The deputy fired nine shots at the man, hitting him seven times in the upper body, Alfred said.
Sheriff Alex Villanueva has defended the deputy’s actions, saying Gonzalez was “about a second or two away from getting beaned in the head” with the object being wielded by the patient. He said the deputy couldn’t wait for a hospital mental health team to respond.
“I’m not sure how long you want her to wait for people to gather together on the first floor of the hospital and get a plan together and go up to the fourth floor to intervene,” Villanueva said. “No. I wouldn’t expect anybody to wait under those circumstances.”
The hospital issued a statement after the shooting confirming that the deputy who fired was not a member of the hospital-based sheriff’s unit, but was providing security for the private room patient.