He grabbed his mother’s wrist and took her phone when she tried to call 911. They were having a family argument.
Within hours, 30-year-old Leonard Thomas was dead, killed by a police sniper’s bullet on a May night in 2013. In this freeway-divided Tacoma suburb, the unarmed black man was shot on his porch while holding his 4-year-old son in his arms.
Police said the minor dispute had turned into a standoff that could only be settled with a militaristic show of force and lethal action.
But on Friday, a federal court jury in Seattle unanimously disagreed, handing down one of the most costly legal verdicts against police officers in Washington state history.
Having heard testimony from an officer’s after-incident report boasting that the sniper’s bullet, fired from 90 yards away, was a “frickin’ million-dollar shot,” the jury decided to award Thomas’ family $15 million.
The seven-member panel awarded the amount to the family in a civil rights lawsuit as a way of saying local police had overreacted to a minor domestic dispute. At least 27 officers from the Pierce County Metro SWAT team and two armored vehicles were sent to the scene after Thomas — who was bipolar, had been drinking and was despondent over a friend’s death — refused to leave his house.
Witnesses during the trial described a battleground setting: One armored transport was driven across a neighbor’s yard, through a fence, and parked off the back patio of the Thomas home in the town of Fife. The other vehicle, a BearCat personnel carrier, took position at the front of the house.
A four-hour late-night standoff followed, during which Thomas, who spoke defiantly if not belligerently to police, made no threats and repeatedly said he was unarmed, according to court testimony. Police eventually made an offer to Thomas — if he handed over the boy to a relative, they’d leave. (Police planned to arrest him at a later, safer time, testimony showed.)
Thomas agreed and then appeared on the porch with the boy, his backpack and car seat. A commander, however, ordered officers not to let Thomas reenter the home after the handoff. At the same time, the SWAT team blew open the back door and killed the family dog, shooting it at least four times.
Thomas remained on the porch as the sniper took his shot. The .380 bullet hit him in the belt-line, just below the child in his arms.
Police would later say they felt Thomas was using his son as a shield and was holding him hostage.
Thomas’ last words he lay bleeding to death from the sniper’s bullet were, “Don’t hurt my boy.”
The youngster, Elijah Thomas, now 9, told reporters Friday night in televised interviews that he thought his father had done the right thing. “I think he was trying to protect me,” he said.
In a statement, Lakewood police said the court case “boiled down to dissecting and second-guessing over the course of three weeks the actions our officers took during a four-hour standoff where a child’s life was in danger as he was held hostage, dangled out a second-story window and used as a human shield by his father.
“The Lakewood Police Department is always reviewing its practices and procedures for improvement, but is confident the officers involved in this incident acted appropriately given the circumstances they faced.”
Lakewood is another Tacoma suburb of about 59,000 people. Its Police Department was thrust into the national spotlight in 2009 by tragedy when four officers were ambushed at a cafe and killed by a gunman in the state’s most deadly attack on law enforcement.
The statement in the Thomas case did not indicate whether the department would appeal the verdict.
In an internal review conducted after Thomas’ death, Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist decided that police acted lawfully. The sniper, Brian Markert, “an expert marksman, did what was necessary to protect a child,” Lindquist stated in his findings.
The federal jury, in contrast, singled out the Fife and Lakewood police departments and the sniper along with two other officers as principally responsible for the use of excessive force. The operation was headed by officers from the Lakewood department, but Fife officers also participated in the takedown.
According to a breakdown released by the court, the jury assessed $3 million in punitive damages against SWAT commander and Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro; $2 million against the sniper, Markert, a Lakewood sergeant; and $1.5 million against Mike Wiley, a SWAT team commander also from the Lakewood department.
In addition to that $6.5 million, the jury imposed damages on the Lakewood and Fife police departments, awarding $1.4 million in compensatory damages to each of Thomas’s parents, $1.8 million to his estate, and $4 million to his son.
In court documents, Thomas family attorneys said the incident was “steeped in race,” noting that the officers most responsible were white. Thomas’ father, Fred Thomas, who the jury also found was wrongly arrested that May 23, 2013, as he tried to help his son, had said all along that his son’s death would be added to the roster of unarmed black Americans wrongly killed by police.
Court testimony suggested police had their minds made up about Thomas, who they said had a conviction for a drive-by shooting. At an earlier hearing before the trial, Thomas’ estranged wife said she’d informed officers that he was unarmed. According to testimony at that pretrial hearing, Wiley was quoted as saying at the scene: “Baby’s momma [says] ‘No he ain’t got no gun, blah blah blah.’ I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that and found weapons.”
No weapons were found at the Thomas home.
Anderson is a special correspondent.