On May 23, 2013, Annalesa Thomas warned her son Leonard that she would call the police if he didn’t hand over her 4-year-old grandson Elijah. Hours later, 27 Pierce County police officers, two SWAT trucks and a sniper arrived at their home in Fife, a small town of about 9,000 residents in Washington State near the much larger city of Tacoma. The massive police presence came despite the fact that Leonard was unarmed.
A four-hour standoff ensued: according to the police, Leonard, 30, had snatched the phone from Annalesa when she first tried to call 911 and held Elijah against the child’s will. Annalesa, however, had told the police that she called for help simply because she did not want Elijah be watched by Leonard, who struggled with alcoholism.
Near the end of the standoff, police struck a deal with Leonard in which he would hand over Elijah and the officers would leave. As police raided Leonard’s house, he panicked, grabbing Elijah. Watching the scene unfold, a sniper then fired a .308 caliber round into Leonard’s waist.
Leonard bled out on the floor just inside the home, clinging to Elijah as police pulled his son from his arms. “Don’t hurt my boy,” Leonard told the police. Those were his last words, Annalesa told The Appeal.
On July 14, 2017, a jury in federal district court awarded Leonard’s family $15 million in civil damages, one of the largest sums awarded in a civil suit over a police killing in Washington history (after an appeal of the verdict, the Thomas family agreed to settle their wrongful-death and civil-rights lawsuit for $13 million). Elijah Thomas, now 10 years old, told reporters after the verdict that he believed his father was simply “trying to protect me.”
Despite the verdict and public outrage over Leonard’s death and others wrongfully killed by police, including protests, no officers were criminally charged in the case. But this is not an unusual outcome in Washington, where an officer may not be found criminally liable if he or she acted “without malice” according to state law. The legislation was passed in 1986 by lawmakers who were concerned about insufficient protections for the police after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1985 in Tennessee v. Garner that it was unconstitutional to use deadly force against an unarmed suspect fleeing arrest. But because of the law, no officer in the state has been convicted of wrongfully killing someone in the line of duty in more than 30 years. The sole homicide case against a Washington officer was brought in Snohomish County in 2009 when Everett police Officer Troy Meade shot a suspected drunk driver in the back, killing him. Despite another officer testifying against his colleague’s excessive use of force, a jury acquitted Meade of second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter.
“It’s difficult to prosecute a police officer, and it should be, but today it’s impossible,” King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg told The Appeal. “That’s been the result of our legal analysis in every police shooting we’ve ever had.” (The Appeal, September 20, 2018)
I have posted about this case and I-940 on August 30, 2018 and on September 9, 2018. There is a lot of debate about I-940. Is it good law? Is it bad? Does WA State really need to change the way it investigates officer involved shooting?
Do we want to make it easier for an "anti-cop" jury to convict an officer for doing his or her job? Can we expect a jury to return a fair verdict when it has weeks or months to make a decision, yet the officer on the street had only seconds to make a life and death decision?
If police officers know that they may be prosecuted and face homicide charges following an officer involved shooting, won't they hesitate to use deadly force to protect themselves and others in the community?
If we, as a community, expect police officers to put their own lives at risk to protect the community they serve, shouldn't we as a community protect those officers from criminal prosecution when they are forced to kill someone in the line of duty?
I can't tell you how to vote on I-940 this fall. What I can tell you is that this is an important issue that directly affects the safety of our police officers and our communities. Take time to consider all of the issues surrounding I-940 and make an informed and considered vote on this issue.