One of the largest police deadly force wrongful death verdicts in state history – more than $15 million awarded to the family of Leonard Thomas “an unarmed black man killed by a SWAT sniper in Fife”– recently found against the near-by cities of Lakewood and Fife, Washington.
Though the seven-member jury’s decision was a “complete rejection of police claims,” Lakewood’s official statement in response nevertheless expressed confidence that “the officers involved in this incident acted appropriately given the circumstances they faced.”
Lakewood additionally stated, “The Lakewood Police Department is always reviewing its practices and procedures for improvement.”
Accordingly, a Public Disclosure Request was submitted this past July 15 to obtain a copy of Lakewood’s most current Use of Force Policy (UFP) under the presumption that a document so foundational to – and included in – the “Manual of Standards” provided to “all officers authorized to carry a lethal weapon” would be subject to the review for possible improvement the city says the LPD is “always” conducting.
This was the hope expressed following the verdict by Annalesa Thomas, Leonard Thomas’ mother and now guardian of his six-year-old son who was four years old at the time Thomas was killed:
“Hopefully this will make a change in policy and protocol.”
As the Constitution is to the United States, updated as it was with the Bill of Rights amendments, so one would think – given it’s literally a matter of life-and-death – likewise important would be the Lakewood Police Department’s Use of Force Policy, updated with amendments on occasion to emphasize to the police – and ensure the public – that “preservation of human life is at all times a central tenet of the policy agency.”
In other words, neither the Constitution nor the Use of Force Policy is just a piece of paper.
Use of Force Policy review – let alone changes to the policy – have long been the subject of debate in this publication ever since Lakewood’s UFP was found wanting when contrasted to standards recommended in 2012 following an investigation by the ACLU of such policies of police departments across the country.
While awaiting – now going on over a half-month – the requested copy of Lakewood’s most current UFP so as to compare it to the one (16 pages) obtained in 2013, it is instructive to Google “Lakewood, WA Use of Force Policy” and find that one of the first documents to appear is a free, instantaneously downloadable PDF of the eight-page UFP for Lakewood, Colorado.
In fact, Lakewood, Colorado provides the public the entirety of its police department’s policies including scores of linked documents comprising hundreds of pages covering everything from Code of Ethics to protocol for Trespass Notices.
In contrast, if requesting a copy of the Lakewood Police Department’s Use of Force Policy on the LPD’s website, the requester is directed to the City Public Record’s Department which request, as mentioned earlier in this article, was made and the results still awaited 20-days-and-counting.
Also found on page one of the search for the UFP of Lakewood, WA is a headline out of Cleveland, Ohio where that city was required, in a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, to undergo “substantial – and substantive – overhaul of a use-of-force policy that top police brass once bragged was a model for the country.”
Then, yet again on the search engine’s page one, there’s Denver’s roll out of its revised 10-page use-of-force policy following a year of meetings reflective of “a national trend of major cities rethinking how their police interact with citizens after high-profile police shootings around the United States, often involving the deaths of unarmed black men.”
Leonard Thomas, whose death was the subject of a three-week trial significantly involving members of the Lakewood Police Department, was an unarmed black man.
According to the KMGH newscaster’s voice-over opening line announcing the UFP changes of the Denver Police Department: “Officers using excessive force have cost the City of Denver millions of dollars in recent years.”
According to sources, Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro’s presentation to the Public Safety Advisory Committee this past August 1 “emphasized the low ratio of force necessities and applications.”
However, the single $15 million award to the Thomas family costing the City of Lakewood ranks almost as high ($16.6 million) as the police-misconduct lawsuits in the four cities of Indianapolis, Austin, San Jose, and San Francisco over the last five years combined.
Lakewood’s wrongful death verdict is higher than a decade of settlements totaling nearly $13 million involving the police and sheriff departments paid out by the city of Denver, according to a Denver Post analysis.
As a result, Denver’s Use of Force Policy has received radical scrutiny and consequent renovation.
Will Lakewood do the same?