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Criminal Justice

A Deputy Shot Nicholas Burgos As He Had A Psychiatric Crisis. Now His Family Is Suing.

A picture of Nicholas Burgos, wearing a red sweatshirt with the hood down, looking directly at the camera.
Nicholas Burgos was described as a big-hearted, funny man who struggled with mental health and substance abuse.
(Courtesy of Benjamin Burgos)
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The family of a man shot and fatally wounded by a Sheriff’s deputy inside a hospital while the man was experiencing a mental health crisis filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit Friday.

The suit names the Sheriff’s Department, L.A. County, the Department of Health Services and Deputy Dalia Gonzalez, who shot 38-year-old Nicholas Burgos last fall inside Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

In addition to accusing Gonzalez of using excessive force, the suit claims the Department of Health Services, which runs the hospital, is guilty of medical negligence for failing to take measures to prevent such an encounter.

According to the Sheriff’s Department, Gonzalez shot Burgos multiple times on Oct. 6, 2020 after he “lunged toward” her while holding a medical device over his head. Burgos died almost a month later.

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Arnoldo Casillas, the family’s attorney, said Burgos lived with a mental illness and was a regular patient at Harbor-UCLA. Burgos’ family, which has described him as funny and big-hearted, has said he also struggled with substance abuse. On the day of the incident, Burgos was on a temporary psychiatric hold and receiving treatment on the fourth floor of the hospital, Casilla said.

An Avoidable Confrontation?

Gonzalez and another deputy were guarding an injured deputy who was being treated on the same floor. The Sheriff’s Department said Burgos smashed a window and entered the deputy’s room before the shooting occurred.

The lawsuit says Gonzalez knew she was near the mental health ward and that the hospital’s behavioral response team was on its way to handle Burgos.

It suggests she could have taken steps to avoid a confrontation with Burgos until help arrived, and instead “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.”

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No Comment

The Sheriff’s Department said it has no comment on the lawsuit at this time.

The shooting sparked protests by Harbor-UCLA doctors and nurses, who said Gonzalez should have waited for the specially-trained staff to deescalate the situation before using lethal force.

Casillas criticized the decision to position armed deputies in that part of the hospital.

“The thought of putting armed guards a few doors down from a ward where you keep mental health patients that are in crisis is mind-boggling,” he said.

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At a July 9, 2021 rally protesting the killing of Nicholas Burgos, his mother Maria Guzman, on the left holding a poster with a drawing of Burgos under the words "Justiice for Nick Burgos," his brother Benjamin Burgos, in the middle, and his sister María Burgos, on the right, stand in front of microphones addressing the rally.
Nicholas Burgos' mother Maria Guzmán (left), his brother Benjamin Burgos (center), and his sister María Burgos (right), address Friday's rally outside Harbor-UCLA.
(Robert Garrova
/
LAist)

Speaking at a rally outside Harbor-UCLA Friday, Burgos' sister Maria Burgos added her voice to the criticism.

“We brought him here because he needed help,” a tearful Burgos said. “We thought he was going to be safe in this hospital.”

The suit also says the Department of Health Services failed to take steps to address the risk of law enforcement killing patients, even after an LAPD officer fatally shot Ruben Herrera at the hospital in 2015.

The complaint suggests the hospital should have isolated law enforcement patients under armed guard “away from the general population of patients,” and it should have installed outside locks on the doors of rooms housing mental health patients.

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The Burgos family, Casillas and reform advocates said Friday they want to see law enforcement removed entirely from health care settings like Harbor-UCLA.

“What we are calling on the county to do today — and the Department of Health Services — is to cancel the contract between DHS and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department,” said Mark-Anthony Clayton-Johnson, founder of the Frontline Wellness Network.

The Department of Health Services provided a statement Friday by Harbor-UCLA CEO Dr. Anish Mahajan, who said that after the Burgos shooting the hospital created a task force "comprised of medical staff, law enforcement, and community stakeholders to ensure that hospital policies emphasize and optimize safety in the patient care setting."

The task force's recommendations "are now under consideration or are being implemented," he said, without providing further details.

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Robert Garrova is reporting on the intersection of mental health and law enforcement.