Questions abounded in the wake of an ill-fated Pierce County Metro SWAT team standoff in Fife nearly six years ago — a confrontation that went terribly wrong when an unarmed black man was shot dead on his porch clinging to his 9-year-old son.
Why did a routine domestic dispute call generate a full-bore SWAT response, complete with nearly 30 heavily armed officers and an armored vehicle driven into the front yard? How did it escalate over four hours to the point that officers blew up a door and killed the family dog? And above all, why was 30-year-old Leonard Thomas fatally shot by a sniper when he didn’t threaten police or his son and didn’t have a gun?
Thomas’ family didn’t get all the answers they sought, but they did get one of the largest jury awards in a police deadly-force case in Washington history. The City of Lakewood agreed to a nearly $12.5 million settlement last year; three of its cops — including the current police chief — were key players on the SWAT team and were singled out in the lawsuit.
For Lakewood taxpayers, however, another question persisted: Why should they be on the hook for a police response outside their community, 12 miles away, in Fife?
The answer is tied up in the the Metro SWAT team structure; Lakewood was the largest of six participating cities, provided the most personnel and resources, and thus had the greatest risk exposure.
Not anymore. After a months-long review, Lakewood decided to pull out. As of Jan. 1, the multijurisdictional team that’s shared SWAT duties since at least 2005 has been disbanded.
The move will certainly be disruptive, but a rethinking of the old model was overdue.
The shakeup will bring short-term uncertainty and start-up costs, as Lakewood’s former partners (Puyallup, Bonney Lake, Fife, Sumner and Steilacoom) figure out what to do next. Lakewood is forming a citywide high-risk warrant team and contracting with Pierce County Sheriff’s Department to handle traditional SWAT calls, such as hostage situations and barricaded suspects.
We say the Lakewood City Council had good cause to withdraw, based on a reasonable concern that crippling financial losses could be incurred in future SWAT-related litigation. And the city’s 60,000 residents needed assurance that elected leaders are looking out for their financial interests.
“I think we have a responsibility as a council to do something,” Mayor Don Anderson said before the council’s vote in November. “Since the Thomas case, we have not done anything.”
File it under the heading of once bitten, twice shy. Lakewood had to pay $1 million from local funds to settle the Thomas suit — its municipal insurer paid the remaining $11.5 million — but at one point the city stood to lose $6.5 million to cover punitive damages for its three officers at the center of the May 2013 standoff.
Anderson said the change will ensure that “the risk of another Thomas case is, if not eliminated, then at least substantially reduced.”
Taking steps to minimize liability makes sense because the Thomas case was not an anomaly; there’s a trend of skyrocketing costs associated with police misconduct judgments and settlements across the country. Between 2010 and 2014, the amount paid out by the 10 U.S. cities with the largest police forces grew by nearly 50 percent, from $168.3 million to $248.7 million, according to a Wall Street Journal report.
By contracting out SWAT services to the Sheriff or Washington State Patrol, Lakewood and other local communities can escape some exposure. Large contract agencies also have superior tactical equipment, unified policies and training standards, and a strong chain of command.
That’s not just good financial stewardship; it’s also a better recipe for protecting the public — and preventing tragedies like what befell the family of Leonard Thomas.