The family of a Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputy has filed a claim against the Sheriff’s Department, alleging that excessive overtime hours he was forced to work in the county jails drove him to suicide.
Deputy Arturo Atilano Valadez was one of four current and former Sheriff’s Department employees to die by suicide in a 24-hour span early last month. Atilano, who was about to turn 50, was assigned to the North County Correctional Facility at the time of his death.
“When it comes to him, he was working so much overtime, his wife said that he was like a zombie,” said Bradley Gage, an attorney representing Atilano’s widow and two daughters in the claim, which is a precursor to a lawsuit.
Gage said that sometimes, Atilano and other deputies were so exhausted that they took turns sleeping in jail cells. According to the claim, Atilano’s family is seeking $20 million in damages.
A statement provided by the Sheriff’s Department on Saturday did not address the allegations.
“A loss of a department family member is extremely tragic and our continued thoughts are with the family during this difficult time,” the statement said. “The department has not received the official claim, but is deeply committed to ensuring the well-being and safety of all its employees.”
At a news conference last week recounting his first year in office, Sheriff Robert Luna said his agency is in the midst of a “staffing crisis” that has left it short about 1,200 sworn deputies.
“The people who are working here are taking up that slack – they are working their tails off,” he told reporters. “I recognize that, we recognize that, and we have been working very hard behind the scenes to figure out a way to reduce overtime, because that’s how we’re filling in the gaps.”
The Sheriff’s Department on Saturday could not immediately provide information about the number of vacancies of sworn personnel at the jail where Atilano was assigned and overtime requirements for deputies there.
A request by the Times for Atilano’s work history, including his time sheets, overtime hours and assignments, is also pending.
Deputies sometimes volunteer for overtime shifts for extra money. Gage said that in Atilano’s case, those shifts were mandatory.
“It’s illusory to say it’s voluntary,” Gage told the Times. “They’re required to work eight overtime shifts in a month … So if they don’t volunteer, then they get drafted.”
Gage said that Atilano joined the department more than 21 years ago and spent the last dozen working in the jails. Gage said Atilano asked to leave the custody assignment, but his transfer requests were repeatedly denied. He added that forced overtime is a problem department wide, beyond custody facilities.
Gage is also representing the parents of a deputy who was shot in the head while driving his patrol car in September. The family of Deputy Ryan Clinkunbroomer alleges that he was forced to work so much overtime that he struggled to stay alert.
“They’re so exhausted, working so much overtime, that they can’t function,” Gage said.