Slain Lakewood officers’ families advise lawmakers

Legislature: At hearing in Olympia, Gregoire also outlines her proposals to crack down on criminals

January 19, 2010 

Family members of three of the four Lakewood police officers slain Nov. 29 were among those advising state lawmakers Monday how to close gaps in the criminal justice system that allowed convicted robber Maurice Clemmons to run free.

Kim Renninger, widow of Sgt. Mark Renninger, said that her husband, a former Army Ranger and a SWAT team leader, was never afraid of confrontation.

“On Nov. 29, he wasn’t given the chance to fight back,” she said. “I’m forced to fight on his behalf.”

Clemmons shot the officers – Renninger and officers Tina Griswold, Greg Richards and Ronald Owens – in a Parkland coffee shop, then fled. Forty-two hours later, he was shot dead by a Seattle police officer.

But many of those who addressed the House Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Committee on Monday pointed out that Clemmons might not have been at large, if only laws had been different.

Gov. Chris Gregoire outlined proposals that she believes could help. She wants an amendment to the state constitution allowing a judge to deny bail if the judge believes detention would protect public safety. Clemmons was out of jail on bail when he killed the four officers.

Gregoire also wants improvements in the interstate agreements that require states to supervise each others’ criminals after they are released from prison. She said she wants the host states to have more authority over the criminals. Clemmons moved to Washington, where he had family members living, after being released from prison in Arkansas.

Some of the most emotional testimony Monday came from members of the fallen officers’ families, who tearfully recounted their losses and described the impacts the deaths had on their children.

Rhonda LeFrancois, Owens’ sister, recalled the note she found when she was packing his belongings after his death. The note, found in a kitchen drawer, urged her to “make a difference.”

“That’s what we all need to do here tonight,” she said.

Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar told the panel of lawmakers that police want notification when offenders are released from prison, and they want the notification system automated. That way, he said, officers would know in advance if the person they are about to come into contact with is a violent criminal.

Eldon Vail, Department of Corrections secretary, also said his staff members need more information on offenders from other states. Currently, he said, community supervision staff do not receive the offenders’ complete criminal histories or mental health assessments.

Farrar asked for police officers to be allowed to keep more information about themselves out of the public domain, so that they and their families can avoid becoming victims of a criminal with a vendetta. Finally, he spoke to what he described as the inadequacy of the police pension system, which denies benefits to survivors if their loved one has not served at least 10 years.

Tom McBride, executive secretary of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, noted that some of the most dangerous cases are those in which offenders fall somewhere between the mental health system and the criminal justice system.

“Sometimes cases drop between the two systems,” he said. “It’s unpredictable how those cases play out.”

In October, Clemmons was declared competent to stand trial for offenses committed in Washington by psychologists at Western State Hospital. But the psychologists also said Clemmons was dangerous to the community.

“Judges must have better discretion to hold people when their gut tells them, when the evidence tells them, that he is going to re-offend,” said Brian Wurts, president of the Lakewood Police Independent Guild.

The testimony continued late into Monday evening.

Another hearing before the same committee was set for 10 a.m. today.

Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635

debbie.cafazzo@thenewstribune.com

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