Mistakes and failures create a recipe for tragedy

The numbness from Sunday's execution of four Lakewood police officers at a Parkland coffee shop is still with us. Suspect Maurice Clemmons, 37, has paid for his crime with his own life.

Our shock is surpassed only by our collective sorrow for the grieving family members and friends of Sgt. Mark Renninger, 39; Officer Ronald Owens, 37; Officer Tina Griswold, 40 and Officer Greg Richards, 42. Their murders are heinous crimes. They serve as a reminder of the bravery displayed every day by the men and women who pin a badge on their uniforms and put their lives on the line to protect and serve the rest of us. Theirs, indeed, is a noble profession carried out with distinction and honor. We are forever in their debt.

Our sadness is mixed with anger, too, and one overriding question: How did this happen?

The answer, tragically, is that our criminal justice and political systems failed us and as a result of that failure, four of Washington’s police officers are dead.

The litany of failures – repeated failures that allowed a dangerous felon to wander free on the streets – begins in Arkansas where Clemmons first broke the law as a teenager. He was sentenced to up to 108 years in prison for five felonies, including breaking into the home of a trooper and stealing a weapon.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Republican, commuted Clemmons’ sentence after 11 years. Huckabee, a commentator for Fox News, has tried to shift blame and minimize his role in releasing Clemmons nine years ago. But Prosecutor Larry Jegley told the Seattle Times that he had strongly objected to Huckabee’s granting clemency to Clemmons. “This is the day I’ve been dreading for a long time,” the prosecutor said.

Huckabee can wiggle and squirm all he wants. But the truth remains that if Maurice Clemmons were still serving his 108-year term in an Arkansas prison, he would not have been free to murder the four Lakewood officers.

In 2004, Clemmons arrived in this state, where he was declared a “high risk to reoffend.” That label and his recent arrest on eight potential felony charges, including rape, were – unbelievably – not sufficient to keep him behind bars. Just days before the Parkland shooting, Clemmons was allowed to post bail and walk out of the Pierce County Jail a free man.


Again, lots of finger-pointing and blame are going around, but the bottom line is this: The criminal justice system failed in Washington state just as it did in Arkansas.

We are reminded – yet again – that there are dangerous criminals who slip through the cracks in an imperfect criminal justice system. It’s not right. It’s not fair. But it’s the tragic reality.

Like the shooting at Fort Hood Texas a month ago – a shooting that left 12 people dead and 31 injured – there were all sorts of red flags and a lengthy paper trail about Maurice Clemmons, just as there were about Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, the psychiatrist suspected of the Fort Hood rampage. In neither case did the forewarnings trigger an appropriate response from the officials we trust to keep us safe.

We also are left with the question of how Clemmons was able to arm himself with a firearm. As Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence notes, “According to reports, the Washington shooter was a mentally disturbed, multiple felon out of prison who somehow armed himself before killing those Lakewood officers execution-style. We don’t know yet how this killer got his gun, but once again we see how lethally simple it is for dangerous people to get guns in America, helping them commit terrible crimes like this.”

Helmke is right. Without a gun, Clemmons is a coffee shop patron fueled by an apparent hatred for police officers. He goes into a delusional rant about the criminal justice system and is arrested for disorderly conduct.

But put a gun in his hand and – well – we all know the horrific consequences.

We are left with that overriding question again: How can this happen?

As the South Sound Community prepares for Tuesday’s 1 p.m. memorial service at the Tacoma Dome for the fallen officers, we are left to hope that gaps in the criminal justice system are closed and that another Maurice Clemmons does not slip through the cracks.

We are also left to hope that those who aided Clemmons in his run from the law are held fully accountable at the bar of justice.