Serious questions persist over fatal Lakewood-Fife police siege

From the Editorial Board

One of the armored vehicles used by the Pierce Metro SWAT team.
One of the armored vehicles used by the Pierce Metro SWAT team.

Nerves are tested and adrenaline pumps hard when cops are called to deal with mentally unstable, hyper-protective parents. In extreme cases, a father barricades himself in a house with a child while hostage negotiations drag on for hours. In the worst cases, a siege might not end until a SWAT team sniper fires a fatal shot.

Tacoma won’t soon forget last fall’s police standoff with Bruce Randall Johnson II on the city’s Eastside. The wounds remain raw, the sadness profound, after Officer Jake Gutierrez was killed by Johnson during a seemingly routine child welfare check.

What followed was a 10-hour siege in which city and county officers showed grace under fire — literally. A TNT story by reporter Sean Robinson describes their patience as they tried to defuse this armed and dangerous man holding his two children hostage. And they followed clear orders when they finally took Johnson down with a bullet.

In the life-or-death business of a hostage crisis, it’s rare for such confrontations to proceed without controversy.

Another local police siege has been rife with second guessing almost since the moment Leonard Thomas was shot dead on his front porch four years ago, clutching his 4-year-old son and gasping his last words “don’t hurt my boy.”

The questions intensified recently when a federal judge gave credence to several concerns raised by Thomas’ family. District Court Judge Barbara Rothstein kept alive a civil-rights lawsuit the family filed against Fife and Lakewood police and a multidepartment SWAT team. All were involved in the standoff at Thomas’ residence in Fife on May 24, 2013.

An observer could look at some decisions that were made that night and see them as officers doing the best they could in the heat of the moment. But one misstep cannot be dismissed so easily. It centers on Lakewood’s then-assistant police chief, Mike Zaro, who directed the SWAT team’s field operations in this incident.

Why was Zaro allowed to serve as ranking member of his city’s shooting review board after Thomas’ death? Why did he sit on the three-member review board at all? And will the city change its practices so this doesn’t happen again?

These are questions that need addressing before the next police standoff. And Zaro, who’s since been promoted to police chief, is the one to answer them.

Rothstein’s 29-page order leaves several legal avenues open for Thomas’ family. The judge cites evidence suggesting police needlessly escalated a low-level domestic situation; she questioned why they brought in tactical firepower to arrest a man facing a likely misdemeanor charge, who repeatedly said he was unarmed and made no threat to harm his child or police.

Granted, Thomas was no saint; he was drunk and agitated that night, and when he wrested a cell phone from his mother, she called 911. He locked himself in the house with his son and refused to come out.

The Pierce Metro SWAT team arrived with two armored vehicles; one rolled through a neighbor’s fence. The judge noted that dispatching a “lethal response” was unusual under the circumstances.

As Thomas begged to be left alone and said police were scaring his son, his words proved prophetic: “I have a 4-year-old in here. Don’t be smashing in my door, using your stun grenades or blowing my door off the hinges.”

Indeed, the four-hour standoff ended when the SWAT team breached his back door with explosives — a gambit that, in hindsight, appears poorly timed. Thomas was hunkered in the front doorway behind his son, tentatively responding to a negotiator’s overture to let the boy go; the blast startled Thomas and he grabbed the child. That’s when the sniper fired the fatal shot.

A jury “could find incredible” the idea that a protective father would suddenly want to harm his son, the judge wrote in her ruling.

The judge also pointed to evidence suggesting Zaro, the field commander, miscalculated when he authorized the door breaching and perhaps gave ambiguous shoot-to-kill instructions to the SWAT team. “Clearly, the situation was one that should be presented to a jury to examine,” she said.

If this case isn’t settled out of court, it’s hard to predict how a jury might rule. The officer who fatally shot Thomas was cleared by Lakewood’s shooting review board and by the Pierce County prosecutor.

Nobody likes to second-guess cops who do a nerve-wracking job. These professionals never know when another Bruce Randall Johnson might be lurking in a dark hallway.

But one lesson seems clear: A commander responsible for giving a shoot-to-kill order should not help determine the fate of the officer who fired the fatal shot. Not when he later might be called to account for his own performance. Not when his city could be held liable.

We hope Lakewood and its police chief take this lesson to heart.