Police Chief Mike Zaro said officers fired only after Daniel Covarrubias crouched down then raised up holding "a dark object" in a grip consistent with a handgun. The object turned out to be a cellphone.
The mother and family of a 37-year-old man shot to death by Lakewood police in 2015 after pointing a cellphone at officers have filed a $15 million claim against the city.
Daniel Covarrubias was believed to be on his way home after visiting a nearby hospital where he had complained of hallucinations when he climbed atop a 25-foot stack of lumber at Pinnacle Lumber in Lakewood the afternoon of April 21, 2015, according to police and his family. An employee called 911, thinking Covarrubias might be running from police because he heard sirens in the area.
According to the claim filed with the city on Jan. 31, three officers responded and one of the officers, Ryan Hamilton, was talking to Covarrubias atop the pile of wood when another officer, identified as David Butts, pulled up on a motorcycle.
Officer Butts “immediately broadcast over the radio that he had seen something in Daniel’s hands and then opened fire, which prompted Officer Hamilton to simultaneously fire on Daniel,” the claim alleges.
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The claim alleges that “non-law enforcement witnesses reported that Daniel appeared to have nothing in his hands.” It claims Butts fired without talking to Hamilton or assessing the situation to determine whether Covarrubias actually posed a threat.
Tort claims are filed to give a city a chance to resolve a claim administratively before a lawsuit is filed.
At a news conference after the shooting, then-acting Police Chief Mike Zaro said officers fired only after Covarrubias crouched down then raised up holding “a dark object” in a grip consistent with a handgun. The officers fired nine shots between them, he said.
The claim said Covarrubias was struck four times — once in the belly, twice in the chest and once in the head. A cellphone was found under the body.
Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist determined the shooting was justified, according to The News Tribune of Tacoma.
“The officers’ actions were in response to a perceived deadly threat,” Lindquist said in a statement. “The loss of life here is regrettable and apparently due to a combination of circumstances, mental health issues and drugs, including methamphetamine.”
According to the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office, Covarrubias died from a gunshot wound to his head and had benzodiazepines and methamphetamine in his system at the time, The News Tribune reported.
The dead man’s mother, Marilyn Covarrubias, has become an advocate for initiative, I-940, an initiaive that would reform the state’s deadly-force statutes and mandate mental health-crisis training for officers.
The $15 million being sought by the Covarrubias family mirrors the amount awarded last summer to the family and estate of Leonard Thomas, a 30-year-old unarmed African-American man killed by a SWAT team sniper following a four-hour standoff in May 2013.
The verdict was awarded against the City of Lakewood, Zaro, who is now police chief, and two Lakewood officers and is the largest police wrongful death verdict ever handed up in the Western District of Washington. The city is appealing the verdict.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the officers involved in the shooting based on an error in a court document.