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Originally published Saturday, April 10, 2010 at 5:46 PM

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Danny Westneat

Lost in the backlash against cops' families

I guess we still think it was all Arkansas' fault. Last week the families of the four dead Lakewood police officers dared say that maybe...

Seattle Times staff columnist

I guess we still think it was all Arkansas' fault.

Last week the families of the four dead Lakewood police officers dared say that maybe our own justice system could have done more to keep cop-killer Maurice Clemmons locked up.

For this they were treated as the second coming of Judas.

"Never in the history of the South Sound, perhaps, have so few squandered so much goodwill in so little time," suggested an editorial writer in The News Tribune.

"It's really kind of a kick in the head," said the Pierce County sheriff's spokesman, Ed Troyer.

"This is troubling to the memory of those who gave their lives serving the public," read a typical online comment.

They're all talking about the claims filed against Pierce County arguing the cops, jail staff and prosecutors ought to have considered Clemmons' homicidal jailhouse phone calls before letting him post bond and go free last November.

Within 24 hours, three of the four families reversed course and dropped their claims, citing the public and official backlash.

I thought the families had a good point the first time.

It's true the price tag used to make that point — $182 million in damages for the various survivors — was as off the charts as it was tone-deaf.

I can't judge whether they were greedily after that much cash. Their main argument, though, was right on: that Clemmons was allowed to bail out of jail too easily.

That this was met with such defensiveness by justice-system officials is part of a pattern of denial that goes back to December, when we first started blaming this entire tragedy on the state of Arkansas (which let Clemmons go free years ago).


What jumped out at me in the families' complaint was something that truly deserves outrage: Clemmons was released from jail at least four weeks early due to "good behavior."

Yes, even while he was in jail shouting: "I'll kill all you bitches." Even as he was on tape threatening to murder cops. Even as he was calling his buddies and asking them to get him a gun.

"The next time the police pull me over I am going to shoot him dead in his face," Clemmons said from jail on Sept. 27, 2009, during his stint of good behavior. "... The strategy is, gonna go kill as many of those devils as I can until I can't kill no more."

There are dozens of comments like this on the jail tapes. According to the complaint, nobody ever listened to the recordings until after Clemmons got out, shot the four officers and was killed himself.

Prosecutors and police for Pierce County said last week it's insane to expect them to listen in on all the calls made by inmates in their jail. They came armed with an estimate that it would require 50 full-time employees and $45 million a year.

This kind of strained defense suggests we still aren't ready to get serious about keeping maniacs like Clemmons locked up.

Nobody is saying they monitor every call from every inmate, in real time. Clemmons was exceptional: a violent ex-con, known to be mentally unstable, who was up for a third strike that would put him away for life.

That isn't hindsight: We've been told repeatedly that the state and Pierce County knew how dangerous he was and tried "desperately" to keep him in custody.

Yet at bail hearings, there wasn't much objection when Clemmons was portrayed as a model inmate. During a mental-health evaluation in October, two psychologists asked Clemmons if he'd had thoughts of harming anyone — including police officers. Clemmons told them no. He passed that psych evaluation.

How might those hearings, or that psych evaluation, have been different if what Clemmons was actually saying on jailhouse tapes had been known? Most of the recordings were made during the period he was credited with "good behavior." But nobody ever asked to listen to them.

As the complaint said: "Using the most basic law-enforcement skills — the art of listening and reporting — Pierce County could have determined that Clemmons was engaging in criminal behavior while in jail, threatening the life of jail personnel, intimidating critical witnesses in a child rape, and formulating a specific plan to execute as many police officers as possible upon his release."

He might have gotten out and killed eventually, anyway. He is to blame for the murders, not Pierce County. But the purpose of all this second-guessing is so the system — the thing that stands between us and the killers — can do better next time.

Instead, the system thinks it did just fine the last time. Now that's troubling to the memory of those who gave their lives serving the public.

Danny Westneat's column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or

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About Danny Westneat

Danny Westneat takes an opinionated look at the Puget Sound region's news, people and politics. Send tips or comments to His column runs Wednesday and Sunday. | 206-464-2086



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