Last November and December, I wrote about the Lakewood police officers who were murdered in cold blood by Maurice Clemmons. It was an intense time for Pierce County, and the ripples are still being felt, and probably will be for a long, long time.
A couple of days ago, news broke that the families of the 4 slain officers had filed a multi million dollar claim against the City of Tacoma and Pierce County. As soon as I read that, I said out loud, "And here comes the angry backlash..." I was right. Comments were pouring into the various news websites: KING-5, KOMO-4, KIRO-7, MyNorthwest.com, ad nauseum.
"How dare they do this a mere 5 months after the cops were killed!"
"We gave money to the fund to help them out and that wasn't enough? I want my money back!"
And of course the usual lawyer-bashing that goes on whenever frivolous lawsuits are filed. I love a good lawyer joke, and I agree that a good portion of them are sleazeballs, but I have never, and will never, work for a sleazeball. Oh no wait, that's not right. I did work for some sleazeballs when I first moved to Washington, and that is why I had 5 different jobs in less than 2 years, because I couldn't stand the people I for whom I was working, so I kept quitting.
Because I have worked in law for nearly 20 years, I understand the reason why the claim was filed. I knew in my heart that the families were definitely NOT in it for the money at all. However, a claim is the first step in the legal process against a municipality like Tacoma and/or Pierce County. It puts them on notice that a lawsuit will probably be filed after the 8 month time period runs out, at which time discovery will commence and then we can find out what exactly went wrong last fall and how to fix the system so that it never happens again. Unfortunately, you have to put a dollar amount attached to your claim. Or else you have no claim. The claim was filed simply to force the County to take this crime seriously and never, ever let another murderer like that out on bail, under any circumstances.
However, the general public doesn't know that and can't be expected to know the reason why a claim pretty much had to be filed. I knew one was coming and the only thing that really surprised me was that it is only 5 months since the murders and even I thought it was too soon. Sheriff Ed Troyer, the Pierce County Sheriff's Department spokesperson, was taken off guard and even he made a comment to the press about this is what happens when you get lawyers and greed involved. I was surprised that he came right out and said it. The public outcry was vicious. Of all the comments I read, there were only a couple that supported the families' decision.
Two days later, the attorneys announced that the claims were being dropped immediately by 3 of the families, and no monetary damages would be sought. But I feel like the damage is done. The quick back peddling and withdrawal of the claim was the right thing to do, but as I said, the damage is done. I'm not so sure that the public will ever feel compelled to donate to any charity that benefits the families of slain police officers, like they did last fall when 6 cops were murdered in a 2 month period.
One of the things that the families cited as a reason for the claim was that Maurice Clemmons told his wife over the jail house phone that he was going to kill cops. I've heard the audio tape of the conversation and it's chilling the way he angrily tells her he's not going to jail again and he is going to kill any cop that tries to back him down. Everyone has been asking why that conversation wasn't monitored. Unfortunately, inmates have as much right to free speech as everyone else, and cops accept the fact that prisoners threaten to kill them all the time. There also isn't the manpower to monitor every single phone call of every single inmate. It's not realistic to expect someone to attempt to sift through thousands of hours of calls and try to figure out if threats are real.
How do I feel about it? Well, I like I said, I was surprised that they acted on it after only a few months. I figured a claim would be filed some time in the fall. I also figured that it really wasn't about the money for the families. All they want are answers, change and closure. And to ensure that it doesn't happen again. I also think that the lawyers were pretty sleazy to request in excess of $130 million. I mean, come on, be real! I think that it was a poor choice to sue the County that opened its arms and hearts after the Lakewood 4 were killed. After all, it's our tax dollars that would have to pay the claim, no matter how much it was. And that's not cool. Personally, I think that the state who is liable for this whole fiasco is Arkansas. They are the ones who ultimately dropped the ball by releasing Maurice Clemmons, who was serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole. I'm still not 100% clear on the reason why he was set free. Arkansas unleashed him on Washington.
What do you think? Should the families have filed the claim? Waited longer? Not filed at all? Were the lawyers out of line for requesting over $130 million? Do you think the families wanted the money or weren't interested in it? I want to know how you feel about this issue, because the public reaction, region wide, was so visceral.