Rethink use-of-force policy and police oversight in Lakewood

A News Tribune editorial asks, “What took so long?” (TNT, 5-12), regarding the release of information in the most recent fatal shooting by Lakewood police.

It took nearly three weeks to make public details of the April 21 death of Daniel Covarrubias, such as the fact that he was wielding a cellphone when he was shot. In contrast, within six days we knew what happened when Patrick O’Meara was killed by Lakewood police in Tillicum on June 18, 2013, including that O’Meara held a toy gun.

How is it that a toy gun and a cellphone constitute the need for lethal force?

Lakewood’s Use of Force Policy does not instruct officers "that the use of deadly force is an extreme measure to be employed only in the most limited and extraordinary of circumstances" – a finding of the ACLU following its 2012 investigation of police departments across the country.

Neither is there a preamble “to communicate both to the community and to police officers that the preservation of human life is at all times a central tenet of the policy agency.”

Neither is there the appropriate emphasis upon de-escalation in which “an officer may withdraw to a position that is tactically more secure or allows an officer greater distance in order to consider or deploy a greater variety of force options.”

It was findings such as these that culminated in U.S. District Judge James Robart’s decision handed down to the Seattle Police Department in December 2013 for “a sweeping set of policy changes that describe when the use of force is appropriate,” according to Mike Carter and Steve Miletich of The Seattle Times.

Among them: “If circumstances allow, attempt to de-escalate tense situations to reduce the need for force. When using force is unavoidable, the policy cautions officers to use only the force necessary to make the arrest, and says that their conduct before force was used may be considered by the department in determining whether force was appropriate.”

The News Tribune editorialists ask: “Doesn’t a case like this cry out for an oversight board that includes community members with no ties to law enforcement?”

Indeed, it’s time to disband Lakewood’s Public Safety Advisory Committee, which has been studying shopping carts for more than a year as directed by the City Council. As was done in Portland, Oregon – with a similar advisory group that also lacked clout and credibility – it should be replaced with a professionally run board.

Ronald C. Ruecker – public safety director of Sherwood, Oregon – wrote in “The Police Chief”: “Our communities reasonably ask, was the use of force consistent with the level of threat confronting the officers? The citizens have the right to expect that the use of force is the option of last resort for law enforcement officers.”

Had the value of human life been the emphasis of the Lakewood Police Department's policy, it is legitimate to consider that Covarrubias and O’Meara would be alive today.

David Anderson is president of the Tillicum Woodbrook Neighborhood Association in Lakewood.