The families of four Lakewood police officers slain in November have taken the first step toward suing Pierce County, preparing formal claims that seek $192 million in damages.
The claims on behalf of the estates of Sgt. Mark Renninger and officers Ronald Owens, Greg Richards and Tina Griswold are expected to be filed today.
Relatives contend Pierce County law enforcement leaders could and should have done more to stop Arkansas parolee Maurice Clemmons before he shot the officers to death Nov. 29 in a Parkland coffee shop, according to copies of the claims obtained Thursday by The News Tribune.
The estates of Renninger, Richards and Griswold seek $58 million each for their spouses and children, predeath general damages and economic loss to their estates. The estate of Owens seeks $18 million for his daughter, predeath general damages and economic loss to the estate.
The claim is a bitter pill for the Sheriff’s Department, which raised money on behalf of the slain officers, led the manhunt for Clemmons and arrested his alleged confederates. Prosecutors still are building the criminal case against those parties.
“It’s really kind of a kick in the head,” sheriff’s spokesman Ed Troyer said Thursday. “We’ve done so much for these families, and we’re going to continue to do things for these families – but at the same token we have a criminal case right now with seven defendants.
“Where is everybody’s priority out here? It’s obviously about the money. No good deed goes unpunished.”
Robert Christie, the Seattle attorney representing the estates of Renninger, Richards and Owens, said Thursday his clients filed the claims to demand accountability.
“Who is monitoring the next Maurice Clemmons?” Christie wrote in the claims.
Renninger’s widow, Kim, told KOMO-4 News for a story broadcast Thursday that Pierce County “messed up.”
“Nobody has come to us. Nobody has said, ‘We’re sorry,’” she said. “Nothing has been addressed with us at all, and so we need to go to the next step and that’s to file the suit and make them held accountable for their actions.”
The claims cite a string of phone calls Clemmons made from the Pierce County Jail last fall. During the conversations, he talked of killing police when he got out. Clemmons made general threats, not mentioning specific officers or a specific department.
The recordings were released to the public in January.
In one, Clemmons is heard saying, “The strategy is: Going to go kill as many of those devils as I can until I can’t kill no more. That is the strategy.”
While calls from the jail are recorded, jail officials do not monitor them regularly.
They should have, the officers’ families contend in their claims.
“This catastrophe, the worst law enforcement tragedy in the history of Washington state, was completely preventable,” the claims state.
Public scrutiny in the wake of the shootings focused on Clemmons’ movements in and out of the jail between May and November 2009. Questions focused on whether the legal system failed to keep him incarcerated.
He bailed out of jail three times while facing a charge of second-degree child rape.
Clemmons had prior convictions for robbery and theft in Arkansas, where he was paroled in 2001 after his prison sentence was commuted by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee.
The child-rape charge in Washington represented a possible third-strike offense, but Pierce County prosecutors had not had the chance to argue the point in court when Clemmons bailed out in November.
County and state officials in Washington have criticized their counterparts in Arkansas for refusing to take the legal steps that would have allowed Clemmons to be held in jail without bail.
Thursday, it was unclear whether the officer’s families intend to file similar claims against the Washington State Department of Corrections or the state of Arkansas.
The families contend in their claims that Pierce County knew Clemmons was dangerous and had threatened to kill jail staff members during one of his bookings.
The county should have made that threat – and others he made during recorded phone calls – known to the Corrections Department, which could have found Clemmons to be in violation of his community supervision from Arkansas and ordered him held in jail without bail, the claims contend.
“Further, the information would have been critical to the Pierce County prosecutors and the Pierce County Superior Court judges involved in the bail hearings for Clemmons,” the claims state.
“Using the most basic law enforcement skills – the art of listening and reporting – Pierce County could have determined that Clemmons was engaging in criminal behavior while in jail, threatening the life of jail personnel, intimidating critical witnesses in a child rape and formulating a specific plan to execute as many police officers as possible upon his release,” the claims continue.
Troyer, the sheriff’s spokesman, called the claims “meritless.”
“There’s no way that we’ll be able to listen to all the tape-recorded calls in the jail,” Troyer said. “We never have been able to, and we never will be able to.”
The jail houses 1,400 inmates a day on average. To monitor every phone call would take an estimated 50 full-time employees and $45 million, Troyer said.
Threats against police are common among inmates, he added, calling them “a daily occurrence.”
“If you locked up everybody that threatened the police, there wouldn’t be enough room,” Troyer said.
Clemmons’ phone calls fell into the same category, Troyer said. If county officials had heard them before the shootings, they could have ordered a mental health evaluation for Clemmons, and little more.
“And he did get a mental health evaluation, which he passed,” Troyer said.
Christie said police agencies exercise discretion every day in whom they investigate and monitor. Clemmons fit the profile of someone who needed to be watched closely, he said.
Efforts to reach Michael Hanbey, attorney for Officer Griswold’s estate, on Thursday were not successful. Last week he filed a lawsuit on the behalf of Griswold’s estate against the seven people accused of helping Clemmons before or after the shootings.
The shootings of the Lakewood officers shocked and moved the community, which donated more than $2 million to a fund for the officers’ nine children.
Surviving spouses of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty qualify for state benefits, including a $150,000 payment and access to their loved one’s retirement benefits, among other things.
Adam Lynn: 253-597-8644
Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486