“The threat in his hand we know it to be a cell phone,” said Attorney Ben Barcus representing the family of Daniel Covvarubias, father of seven, killed by Lakewood Police this past April 21.
The death of Covvarubias is a tragedy at every level – certainly a tragedy for the family.
For everyone else that could have – should have – been involved, from top to bottom, it amounts to abdicated responsibility.
When Patrick O’Meara, wielding as it turned out a toy gun, was killed by Lakewood Police shortly before midnight at a Tillicum residence, June 18, 2013, an inquiry of Lakewood’s legal department as to why Lakewood’s Use of Force Policy was lacking life-over-use-of-lethal-force emphases, a promise was made by City Attorney Heidi Wachter in an email October 21, 2013 that such recommendations would be “properly considered.”
They weren’t unless you consider the 79 words ‘dedicated’ to the subject as found in the December 4, 2013 minutes of the Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC) as fulfilling what Whacter said would be done.
Though the changes were those recommended as the result of the ACLU’s research of Use of Force Policies across the nation in which Police Departments were found wanting – like Lakewood’s – nevertheless the PSAC accepted Lakewood’s Use of Force Policy “as is.”
And yet the PSAC had been directed to the Department of Justice investigation that concluded at that same time – December, 2013 – that Seattle’s Use of Force Policy was deficient and should be revamped to reflect similar changes – and more – outlining for officers when force is appropriate, how much is necessary, and when it is not.
Among the new requirements that were adopted for Seattle police officers: “If circumstances allow, attempt to de-escalate tense situations to reduce the need for force. When using force is unavoidable, the policy cautions officers to use only the force necessary to make the arrest, and says that their conduct before force was used may be considered by the department in determining whether force was appropriate.
“The findings of the Justice Department’s investigation echoed concerns that had been raised for years by Police Department auditors, a review board, blue-ribbon commissions and plaintiff’s attorneys, among others, who have complained that officers escalate to force too quickly.”
To this date the PSAC has provided no substantive, no-stone-unturned evidence that with regards Lakewood’s Use of Force Policy Wachter’s promise to “properly consider” was ever undertaken.
The PSAC evidently had more pressing matters.
Like missing shopping carts – a study relegated to the PSAC by the Lakewood City Council on March 17, 2014. Over a year later, missing shopping carts are still on the PSAC’s agenda.
The three statements missing from the 16 pages of Lakewood’s Use of Force Policy:
One: There is no preamble or mission statement the purpose of which “is to communicate both to the community and to police officers that the preservation of human life is at all times a central tenet of the policy agency.”
Two: There is no declaration instructing officers “that the use of deadly force is an extreme measure to be employed only in the most limited and extraordinary of circumstances.”
Three: There is not – at least not as much as it should be – an emphasis upon the de-escalation step in which “an officer may withdraw to a position that is tactically more secure or allows an officer greater distance in order to consider or deploy a greater variety of force options.”
On the one-year anniversary of O’Meara’s death – June 18, 2014 – Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson wrote the following on the city Facebook page:
“Mr. O’Meara’s death was tragic. It was tragic for him, his family and for the officers who he, by his willful choice, forced into a situation where their lives were threatened and they are involuntarily compelled to live with the consequences. Was it ‘suicide by cop,’ most likely; or just being incredibly stupid? Perhaps we will never know. Officer’s lives will not be risked and policy will not be changed based on an individual’s grudges.”
Mayor Anderson was responding to yet another inquiry as to why Lakewood City Attorney Heidi Wachter’s promise had not been kept.
Mayor Anderson’s protestations to the contrary, “officers’ actions before force was used” – at least per the ACLU and as reflected in changes in Seattle’s Use of Force Policy – “may be considered by the department in determining whether force was appropriate.”
It’s rather hard to fathom why shopping carts are the purview of a safety committee let alone priorities as directed by the Lakewood City Council. It’s time to disband the city’s existing police oversight board – the PSAC – “which lacks clout and credibility and replace it with a professionally run board within the city auditor’s office, comprising a smaller, carefully chosen group of highly qualified members” as was done in Portland, Oregon where “police were consistently putting themselves in unnecessarily dangerous situations where they had to shoot their way out.”
What happened to Covarrubias didn’t have to.
The Director of Public Safety, Sherwood, Oregon, Ronald C. Ruecker wrote in “The Police Chief”:
“Our communities cry out when use of force is juxtaposed against the community’s expectation of necessity. They reasonably ask, was there another way that officers could have defused the situation? Was the use of force consistent with the level of threat confronting the officers?
“The citizens have the right to expect that the use of force is the option of last resort for law enforcement officers.”
Had this ‘value of human life over the use of force’ philosophy, as articulated in such specific wording as recommended by the ACLU, been a part of the LPD’s training manual; had every responsible party at every level taken seriously their mandate to guard public safety – it is legitimate to consider that a different outcome might have occurred on the night of June 18, 2013 and now April 21, 2015.