The money will be used to pay for the punitive portion of a $15.1 million verdict levied by a federal civil-rights jury against the city, its police chief and two officers for the 2013 shooting death of an unarmed black man in front of his 4-year-old son. Lakewood is appealing the verdict.
LAKEWOOD, Pierce County — The Lakewood City Council voted unanimously Monday night to allocate city funds to cover $6.5 million in damages owed by Police Chief Mike Zaro and two other officers who were singled out for financial punishment by a federal jury for their roles in a 2013 shooting death of an unarmed black man who was holding his young son.
The punitive damages were part of a $15.1 million verdict against the city of Lakewood and the officers awarded to the son and parents of 30-year-old Leonard Thomas, who was killed after a four-hour standoff with the Pierce County Metro SWAT team, which Zaro commanded. The council voted 5-0.
Zaro was at Monday night’s hearing but declined comment. The city has appealed the verdict, and a judge’s order upholding it, to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In an email to police personnel sent Tuesday morning and obtained by The Seattle Times, Zaro said the council’s action means “the burden of paying the punitive damages is off our shoulders.
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“As you can imagine, that is quite a relief,” he wrote. He praised the city council and City Manager John Caulfield for their support through the trial and afterwards, adding that “they were certainly disappointed and frustrated with the outcome of the trial, but they never once waivered (sic) in their support of the department.”
Should the verdict stand, the city’s insurance carrier will likely cover most or all of the $8.6 million the jury awarded the family in compensatory damages after finding officers that night repeatedly violated Thomas’ civil rights.
However, there’s a dispute over whether the policy would cover $6.5 million in punitive damages, which are not intended to compensate the victim, but to “punish a defendant and to deter similar acts in the future.”
The jury was instructed they could award punitive damages if it found that the defendants’ conduct … “was malicious, oppressive or in reckless disregard of the plaintiff’s rights.”
There were nearly 30 heavily armed officers from several jurisdictions surrounding Thomas’ home on a cul-de-sac in Fife during the standoff on the night of May 23, 2013. The jury ordered just three of them — all from Lakewood — to pay punitive damages:
- Zaro, who was in charge that night and ordered the assault that led to Thomas’ death, was ordered to pay $3 million;
- Sgt. Brian Markert, a police sniper who shot Thomas, was ordered to pay $2 million;
- Officer Mike Wiley, who commanded an assault team that blew down a door in the home and shot the family dog, was ordered to pay $1.5 million.
Attorneys for the men unsuccessfully argued in federal court that the officers could never pay those amounts and that the awards amounted to a “financial death sentence” when they urged the judge to reduce the damages.
The judge declined, upholding the jury’s verdict and concluding there was more than enough evidence for the jury to have concluded that Zaro and the others acted “outrageously, unreasonably and with malice and callous indifference” to the life of Thomas and the impact their actions would have on his young son and parents.
Now, it appears the city will step up and pay them out of taxpayers’ funds. If the appeal fails, the city or its insurer could also be on the hook for more than $4 million in attorneys’ fees. The defense has cost the city $1.7 million so far, according to the Washington Cities Insurance Authority.
In a memo to the City Council, Lakewood City Attorney Heidi Ann Wachter said the city’s code requires it to indemnify employees acting on the city’s behalf as part of their regular employment. The memo said the city could refuse to pay if “actual misconduct” is found.
So far, city officials have not acknowledged the findings of the jury or U.S. District Judge Barbara Rothstein’s scathing, 69-page order, which dismissed claims that the jury was influenced by race and concluded that rather than trying to help Thomas, every step police took made it more likely he would die.
The standoff at Thomas’ home began after he had an argument with his mother, who called police for help because Thomas was despondent and intoxicated. Her goal was to retrieve her 4-year-old grandson. Police responded with a SWAT callout when Thomas refused to cooperate.
After four hours of negotiations — in which Thomas never threatened the child, police or himself, and repeatedly said he was not armed — Thomas was prepared to let the child leave when Zaro ordered an assault on the home.
Wiley, the assault-team leader, used explosives to blow out a back door and shot the family dog. When Thomas reached for his son, apparently reacting to the explosion and assault team, Markert shot him in the belly from across the street.
Thomas bled to death as officers pried his son from his arms. His last words were, “Don’t hurt my boy,” according to testimony.