Every year, California loses almost 200 lives to police violence. These experiences are not foreign to my family. Nearly a decade ago, my sister Jazmyne Ha Eng was killed by four sheriff deputies while experiencing a mental crisis.
Under other circumstances, where police are not involved, Californians who suddenly lose a loved one to violence can apply for support from the state’s Victim Compensation Board to help pay for funeral costs, cremation, counseling, medical fees or other related expenses.
But victims of police violence are currently shut out of this resource, often viewed not as victims but as somehow less deserving of support because the violence inflicted on them involves an officer. This shortsighted policy only serves to stigmatize families struggling to reckon with the failure of emergency response systems. They prolong the survivor’s trauma and financially destabilize those who have lost loved ones.
Jazmyne came to America as a refugee. Our family survived the Cambodian genocide by fleeing the Khmer Rouge with my parents and two of her three sisters. Like many children who lived through war, Jazmyne struggled to find her footing in her adult life. She worked hard to sustain recovery from adult onset diagnoses of mental illness, which included post-traumatic stress disorder, psycho-dissociative disorder and schizophrenia.
Yet tragedy befell her, as it has thousands of other Californians struggling from crisis to crisis.
Jazmyne didn’t have an appointment the day she died. She was feeling agitated and wanted to sit in a space where she thought she would be safe. While she waited in the lobby, the clinic’s staff placed a low-level call for “backup.” Within 12 minutes of that call, and within 15 seconds of visual contact by four L.A. sheriffs deputies, she was first struck by two probes from a stun gun. Almost immediately, two bullets hit her, one through the palm of her hand and one through her heart.
She died in a way that she often feared as a child – at the hands of government officials.
Her story highlights the importance of Senate Bill 838, legislation introduced this year that would allow some families who have lost loved ones to police violence to submit receipts to the victim compensation board for reimbursement. Under the proposal by state Sen. Caroline Menjivar, a Van Nuys Democrat, California’s victim compensation board will no longer require Californians to file a police report to apply for support. Instead, families and survivors of police violence could submit to the board a letter from a doctor or social worker certifying the incident occurred.
All victims of violence are deserving of care, regardless of their background or how they were hurt. The compensation fund is not an entitlement, it is a last resort reimbursement for families to resource trauma recovery. Providing support and a path toward healing can help a shattered family recover from sudden loss and the financial costs that come with any death.
SB 838 gets us one step closer to that.
The bill could also help restore community confidence in emergency response systems so folks who need help are not afraid to call 911. Critically, it will make our communities safer for everyone because trauma of this kind – when left unaddressed – destabilizes communities and often expresses itself in individuals who turn to self-medication and substance use. It often leads to additional cycles of violence.
By passing SB 838, California will be enacting smart, restorative and more just systems. In order to build real safety across our state, policymakers must shed misguided policies that entrench racist perceptions, dividing survivors into categories of “deserving” or “undeserving,” disproportionately denying underrepresented survivors resources in a time of need.
Over a decade later, the grief my family feels from this type of loss is less overwhelming now. But we continue to wonder what our lives would be like if Jazmyne were still alive.
I don’t know if my family will ever feel whole again. But what I do know is that we can demand better responses to crisis and the damage they cause. We can send future survivors of police violence into systems of care, where they are treated with dignity and love.
Vinny Eng is the director of policy, advocacy and programs for Safer Together, a San Francisco non-profit. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters.