Lakewood police families drop claims after intense criticism

April 9, 2010 

The families of three slain Lakewood police officers decided Friday to abandon their claims for damages against Pierce County after the public unleashed a torrent of criticism against them.

Ronda LeFrancois said she, Kim Renninger and Kelly Richards were hurt by the public’s reaction to their plan to try to force Pierce County to change its policy on monitoring calls made by jail inmates by filing damage claims totaling $134 million.

The women contended the county’s policy of not regularly monitoring such calls contributed to the deaths of their loved ones when they were shot to death Nov. 29 in a Parkland coffee shop.

“It’s a shame that it got so turned around that it was just a focus on the money,” LeFrancois said. “Our true motive is change. We thought we were doing the right thing.”

Richards was “devastated” by the public backlash to the claims, her friend, Barbara Belshay, told a reporter.

“They just wanted to change the policy. It was not out of greed,” Belshay said. “The public did not have all the truth.”

Messages left by The News Tribune for Renninger and the women’s attorney, Bob Christie of Seattle, were not returned by press time.

Claims by the three estates were never officially filed. The estate of the fourth slain officer, Tina Griswold of Lacey, did file a $48 million claim. It could not be determined late Friday if the claim would be withdrawn.

The three families generated a storm of ill will by announcing their plan Thursday. Many callers to local talk radio stations and people commenting on thenewstribune.com equated the families’ actions to a slap in the face to a community that supported them with money and encouragement in the wake of the shootings.

People donated more than $2 million to a trust fund set up for the officers’ nine children and lined the sidewalks the day the officers’ bodies were taken from a funeral home to the Tacoma Dome for a public service.

A comment from chip98404 posted on thenewstribune.com was representative:

“We are all sorry for the loss of the four police officers, make no doubt. But there are ways to affect change. Go to your council, your legislature, your representatives. Organize your neighbors. Create petitions. Call (Tim) Eyman for advice. DON’T bully us with threats of lawsuits. All that does is create ill will. If it is truly ‘not about the money,’ drop the suit immediately and work the right way to effect the changes.”

A minority of people supported the action, saying the families were seeking to fix a problem.

The families contended the county contributed to the officers’ deaths by failing to monitor calls Maurice Clemmons made from jail in which he threatened to kill police officers when released.

The families claimed the county knew Clemmons was dangerous and had threatened to kill jail staff members during one of his bookings.

The county should have made that threat – and others he made during recorded phone calls – known to the state Department of Corrections, which could have found Clemmons to be in violation of his community supervision from Arkansas and ordered him held in jail without bail, the claims contend.

The county was negligent by not reporting the threat or monitoring his calls, the families said.

Clemmons killed Sgt. Mark Renninger and officers Griswold, Greg Richards and Ronald Owens. Clemmons had bailed out of jail while awaiting trial on several charges. He later was shot dead by a Seattle police officer.

Jail spokesman Ed Troyer said corrections officers don’t monitor inmate calls unless they have credible information that an inmate is threatening a specific person. They had no information Clemmons was threatening anyone in calls from jail, he said.

When the call were reviewed after the shootings it was discovered that Clemmons made generalized threats about hating police and wanting to kill them but did not identify specific officers or a department he intended to target.

Kim Renninger, widow of Mark Renninger, called The News Tribune on Friday morning to elaborate on her reasons. She said she did not intend to enrich her family but to force the county to change its policy in regards to monitoring the calls of jail inmates

“It’s not about the money. I don’t want a penny. I don’t want a dime,” Renninger said. “Our intent behind it is to fix a system that is broken.”

Renninger said she and the other families decided to pursue the claims instead of working with the county on policy changes because their initial overtures were ignored.

Christie said Friday he had a conversation with a county attorney March 2 about the fact that the families were considering a claim for damages. He said he told the attorney, who represents the Sheriff’s Department and the jail, that the families were concerned that no one monitored the telephone calls Clemmons made from the jail.

“That’s the last we heard,” he said.

Troyer said Friday that Christie did not come to ask about changing jail policies but “to collect paperwork so he could file a claim.”

LeFrancois said the families weren’t asking the jail to monitor every call made by every inmate, only those known to be violent and to have made threats.

“We think that would be well worth our tax dollars,” LeFrancois, Officer Owens’ sister, said.

Renninger and LeFrancois said the families planned to donate any money they received from the county to a community foundation. The last thing they intended was to hurt the community, which supported them in their darkest hours.

“We are so, so, so grateful to a community that has given us so much,” LeFrancois said.

With criticism mounting Friday afternoon, Christie told The News Tribune his clients planned to drop a specific dollar amount from their claims.

“We’ve eliminated that as a talking point,” he said. “We want to talk about the public safety risk.”

The criticism barely abated, though, and by 4:30 p.m. Seattle news outlets were reporting that Renninger, Richards and LeFrancois were abandoning their claims altogether.

Belshay said the news media and much of the public had twisted the families’ motives so much that they couldn’t go on with the claims. “They decided it was just not worth it,” she said.

LeFrancois said she still hopes the county will consider revising the jail phone policy.

Troyer said the county has no plans to change its policy regarding inmate phone calls. “We have a good policy,” he said.

Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644

adam.lynn@thenewstribune.com

blog.thenewstribune.com/crime

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