The family of an unarmed Native-American man shot and killed by Lakewood police while holding a cellphone in 2015 has sued the city, its police chief and five officers in federal court, alleging a “militarist” and racist culture pervades the department and led to his death.
The complaint alleges 37-year-old Daniel Covarrubias was in a mental-health crisis and under the influence of drugs when confronted by police for trespassing in a Lakewood lumber yard the afternoon of April 21, 2015.
It claims he was the victim of the same aggressive police tactics that resulted in a $15.3 million civil-rights verdict last summer against the Lakewood Police Department, Chief Mike Zaro and two officers for the 2013 shooting death of an unarmed African-American man during a SWAT standoff.
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The city referred inquiries about the lawsuit to its attorney, Stewart Estes, who declined to comment Friday. He said the city had not yet been formally served with the lawsuit, and that he was still reviewing the case.
Covarrubias’ family filed a $15 million tort claim against the city in January, giving the city the opportunity to settle the case before filing suit in U.S. District Court in Tacoma.
Covarrubias was believed to be on his way home from a nearby hospital where he had complained of hallucinations when he climbed atop a 25-foot stack of lumber at Pinnacle Lumber in Lakewood, according to police and his family. An employee called 911.
According to the lawsuit, several officers responded, and one, Ryan Hamilton, was talking to Covarrubias atop the pile of wood when another officer, identified in the lawsuit as David Butts, pulled up on a motorcycle and confronted Covarrubias at gunpoint. Moments later, shots were fired and Covarrubias suffered a mortal gunshot wound to the head.
At a later news conference, Zaro would say that Covarrubias pointed the cellphone at the officers as if it was a gun.
The lawsuit disputes that version.
“Everyone — from employees standing by the officers to persons across the street at [a Wendy’s restaurant] — saw that the item that Daniel pulled out of his pocket was a cellphone,” according to the lawsuit.
The family’s attorney, Gabe Galanda, alleges in the complaints that the “idea of Daniel pointing his cellphone like a gun, and that his cellphone was construed by Defendants Hamilton and Butts as a gun, was an after-the-fact justification for the murder of … an unarmed Native American man, completely concocted by the Defendants and their union appointed counsel.”
The lawsuit alleges “racial bias likely played a role” in the shooting, just as it was alleged to have done in the 2013 shooting of Leonard Thomas, where attorneys for the city argued the all-white jury acted with racial prejudice when it ruled against police officers who killed the black man.
One of the officers named in the Covarrubias lawsuit, Jason Cannon, also was among the members of the Pierce County Metro SWAT team found liable by a federal jury for 14 separate civil-rights violations in connection with the shooting death of Thomas in 2013, resulting in a record $15.3 million verdict that included $6.5 million in punitive damages.
Cannon was found liable for the unconstitutional arrest of Thomas’ father, who was trying to reach his son through a SWAT cordon to de-escalate the confrontation that eventually led to a Lakewood sniper shooting Thomas as he tried to surrender his 4-year-old son and end a standoff at his Fife home.
Zaro has denied any wrongdoing by his officers in connection with the Thomas shooting. The Lakewood City Council recently indemnified Zaro and the other two officers, agreeing to pay their punitive damages out of city funds if an appeal of the verdict fails.