Officers’ families hurt their own cause

April 13, 2010 

The South Sound has showered the families of four slain Lakewood police officers with love, support and money. But the community’s generosity is not so spent that it can’t afford one more gift: the benefit of the doubt.

Let’s accept at face value what the officers’ families say their motivation was for threatening $182 million in claims against Pierce County for the officers’ deaths.

The families announced the claims on Thursday, apparently unaware they were about to touch off a firestorm. The claims shocked Pierce County residents. For many of those residents, word of the pending claims came with an implied message: You didn’t do enough to honor the officers’ memories and comfort their families.

Three of the families quickly retreated on Friday after the resulting backlash. The fourth, the family of officer Tina Griswold, is still weighing its options.

The survivors say they weren’t after money, and the fact is they don’t need it. Each family is entitled to more than $500,000 in death benefits plus lifetime pension and worker compensation payments that equal or nearly equal the officer’s annual salary. The community also raised $2.2 million for a trust for the officers’ children.

What the families want, they say, is a policy change. They claim their loved ones’ deaths could have been prevented if Pierce County had done a better job monitoring calls made by inmates in county lockup.

Cop-killer Maurice Clemmons spoke repeatedly of his plans to kill police in calls to his wife from the Pierce County jail last fall. He made good on those threats just days after bailing out of jail.

But policing jail calls is a tall order. Lots of thugs threaten to “get” cops, and the county can’t possibly monitor the thousands of hours of calls logged by 1,400 inmates.

The Lakewood officers’ families suggest the answer is for the county to cull the worst of the worst for call-monitoring. They assume such a system would have successfully targeted Clemmons. That’s a big assumption, given the kind of criminals in the county jail at any time. Clemmons was not the worst offender in the joint, and he never threatened police directly.

The sad reality is that nothing about Clemmons’ calls – he didn’t target specific officers or name certain locations or discuss detailed plans – made them extraordinary, except in retrospect. The county prosecutor’s office says Clemmons’ rantings wouldn’t have justified a criminal charge. Even if they had, the threats would have earned him another month in jail at most.

The families had one thing right: The lengths to which law enforcement can and should go to protect public and officer safety is worthy of debate. But they and their lawyers – especially their lawyers – badly misjudged how to jumpstart that discussion.

Instead of approaching county policy makers with a proposal or spearheading a community campaign or even calling a press conference to demand change, the families’ lawyer simply told the county’s lawyer to brace for a legal battle.

That’s not exactly the way to make converts to a cause. Good lawyers advise their clients not just how to win in court but, more importantly, how to get the result they seek.

Unfortunately, the strategy in this case cost the families not just their ability to effect change through legal means. It has also undermined their ability to be effective advocates on this issue outside the courtroom.

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