Bill would establish office to investigate police use of force
Last updated 1/27/2021 at 4:23pm
Fred Thomas believes if an independent team had investigated his son’s death, the outcome would have been much different.
In May 2013, 30-year-old Leonard Thomas was shot by Lakewood police sniper Brian Markert after a four-hour standoff between Thomas and the Pierce County Metro SWAT team. The team responded to a domestic dispute at Thomas’ home in Fife. Thomas was unarmed and holding his 4-year-old son in his arms when Markert shot him.
When Fred Thomas and his family pursued legal action, he said they faced an uphill battle. A unanimous federal court jury finally decided on a $15 million settlement for what they found was a wrongful death. However, Fred Thomas said civil suits are not the same as accountability.
“When it comes to police doing wrong, it’s always, ‘Listen to what we say. Don’t look at what we do,’” Thomas said.
Pierce County prosecutors originally found the shooting justified because they considered Leonard Thomas’ son an endangered hostage. An internal investigation into the shooting was also conducted by then-Lakewood assistant police chief Mike Zaro. That investigation also found the shooting was justified.
But Fred Thomas doesn’t trust the process of the police investigating the police and now advocates for police reform — in particular, independent investigations.
“If it’s justified, it will stand up,” Thomas said. “But they don’t want it investigated independently because they know that so many times a real independent investigation would find it was not justified.”
House Bill 1267, now under consideration in the state Legislature, would establish the Office of Independent Investigations. It would examine incidents of deadly force, in-custody deaths and sexual assaults. The office would operate within the Office of the Governor. Once a report is issued by the office, it still will be up to independent prosecutors and police officials to decide whether additional measures are necessary.
This bill comes from recommendations reported by the Governor’s Task Force on Independent Investigations of Police Use of Force, which met 12 times with community groups between July and November 2020.
In this office, the governor would appoint 11 board members and hire a director. The director would have the authority to hire their own panel of investigators ranging from researchers to community activists, but commissioned law enforcement officers would not serve on the panel.
The office would essentially become the lead body to look into use-of-force incidents and would be required to evaluate the events leading up to the incident, as well as other factors that contributed to escalation.
Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards spoke in strong support of the bill during its Jan. 26 public hearing, calling HB 1267 a top legislative priority for Tacoma this year.