State Senator John Laird on Jan. 18 introduced Senate Bill 850 (SB 850), a bill to ensure families of fallen officers receive survival benefits regardless of family structure.
The impetus for the bill was founded in the deaths of law enforcement officers in the county the 17th District representative calls home. The first occurred in 2013, when Santa Cruz Police Department Sgt. Loran Baker and Detective Elizabeth Butler were shot and killed during an investigation. The second was the ambush and murder of Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, a 14-year veteran of the office, in Ben Lomond on June 13, 2020.
The killings of Baker and Butler were the first recorded line of duty deaths in the history of the department. Gutzwiller’s death marked the fourth line of duty death for the department, following two departmental deaths in 1925, and the shooting of Deputy Sheriff Michael A. Gray in 1983.
While Gutzwiller’s death was a massive blow to the San Lorenzo Valley and law enforcement agencies around the state, the final heartbreak was dealt to Gutzwiller’s widow, Faviola Del Real. Del Real and Gutzwiller, who were in a long-term committed relationship, were unmarried at the time of his death, leaving her ineligible to receive survival benefits. Their young son, Carter, was just two years old when Gutzwiller was killed, and Faviola gave birth to their second child, Lucia, shortly after Gutzwiller’s murder.
Laird said that the injustice of a pregnant, grieving widow left without financial support was more than he could bear, so he worked to get SB 850 to the Senate floor.
As of now, the California Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) allows for 50% of the sheriff’s officer’s salary to be paid to the spouse of a PERS member who is killed in the line of duty. While there are additional benefits for the officer’s children if the couple is married, Faviola and her children are left abandoned by the state’s safety net.
Enter Senator Laird.
“I said, ‘we have to do something about this. It’s a righteous issue,’” says Laird, who attended the memorial for Sgt. Gutzwiller.
Since his death, various agencies and organizations have stepped up to pay tribute to the fallen hero, from placing a memorial bench at Dominican Hospital to the park renovation and installation of a tribute to Gutzwiller at Willowbrook County Park in Aptos.
None of those things, however, provide any financial support for Del Real and her children.
“It’s just not fair,” says Laird, “It’s not fair to the surviving partner, and it’s really not fair to the kids. They have no control over their lives; they’ve lost their father, and the fact that certain benefits accrue to the kids of the surviving spouse, and if there isn’t a marriage, there is no surviving spouse, that disadvantages the kids greatly.”
Laird says he believes the state should acknowledge a family unit regardless of marital status and seeks to make things right with this bill. Laird said he wasn’t able to address this issue following Butler’s death in 2013 because he wasn’t in the Legislature at the time.
“We are going to try to deal with retroactivity,” said Laird, “but that could be a problem. If we have to remove retroactivity to pass the bill, we would do so begrudgingly, but our goal would be to address situations that have already happened, in addition to any future incidents.”
While Laird says he hasn’t spoken directly with Del Real, he says that her representatives intimated that she “looks favorably on this legislation, and appreciates the effort being made on her behalf.”
Laird says that while the sheriff’s office is doing everything possible to support Del Real and her children, it was Sheriff Jim Hart who reached out directly to Laird regarding this issue.
“I met with Sheriff Hart in the fall, and he gave me a draft proposal for this bill. We vetted it with different agencies and stakeholders, and tried to format it in a way that we felt it would be successful,” Laird said.
The presentation of the bill now goes through the legislative process before it could land on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk for signing. It will go to the Labor and Retirement Committee, and then to Appropriations. Providing it passes those two rounds, it will move to the Senate floor, and then go over to the Assembly to repeat the same process.
Luckily, Laird sits on both the Labor and Retirement Committee and Appropriations Committee, allowing the Senator to openly advocate for his own legislation.
All told, it could be late summer before SB 850 becomes law, but Laird believes it’s worth the wait.
While Laird doesn’t see any pushback from his fellow senators on the need for the bill, he acknowledges that there are always institutional reasons to oppose it.
“It costs a little more, it opens the door for others, but it’s such a small number of beneficiaries and fixes such a great injustice to those who would benefit from its passage that it would be hard for opponents to make any arguments,” he said. “If, in the final analysis, we can determine that the number of impacted families is low, I think that will help in its passage.”
Laird says he has already written his speech to the committee in his head.
“I’m going to stand up and talk about Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, and all he did, and all he sacrificed,” he said. “I’m going to talk about how he left his family, and how one of his two children was born just days after he was killed, and how they are being penalized on a status issue. It’s not fair. The ultimate sacrifice was made, and that family deserves to be compensated.”