How The Criminal Justice System Improved 10 Years After Lakewood Police Shooting

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Then-Gov. Chris Gregoire leaves the podium after her eulogy for the four slain officers. The service, attended by thousands, was Dec. 8, 2009.

In a Parkland coffee shop on Nov. 29, 2009, Maurice Clemmons opened fire at four Lakewood police officers. They had been working on their laptops around 8 a.m. when the shooting occurred. This moment was before their actual work shift started. The four police officers whose lives were cut short were Mark Renninger, Ronald Owens, Tina Griswold, and Greg Richards.

Immediately after the incident, law enforcement went on a huge search for Clemmons. Police officer Benjamin L. Kelly found him hiding in Seattle. Clemmons resisted his arrest, which ultimately led to his death by Officer Kelly.

Clemmons was a violent repeat offender with behavioral issues who was seeking revenge on the criminal justice system. With eight felonies from his teenage years, did the system fail by allowing him to be released into society?

Originally convicted in Arkansas for violent crimes, he was granted permission to move to Washington. His original sentence was 95 years but was lessened by Governor Mike Huckabee to 47 years due to its severity. This made him eligible for parole and he was released in 2000.

Psychologists had deemed Clemmons as dangerous and highly likely to re-offend. At the time, the bail system allowed for defendants to post bail before seeing a judge as long as the bond is approved. This meant they had not looked at his history. Clemmons was released multiple times despite the red flags.

This tragic incident led to certain reforms to Washington State’s Criminal Justice System. Afterward, the Washington Criminal Justice System became more cautious when reducing out-of-state convicts’ sentences. Improvements were made with risk assessment tools to gauge the behaviors of inmates before their release. Many people did not like the idea of criminals from outside of WA potentially committing crimes inside the state.

In memory of the fallen soldiers, the owners of the coffee shop changed their name from Forza Coffee Shop to Blue Steele Coffee Company. The community came together to pay their condolences. A memorial fund was set up to remember the officers. They managed to raise up to $3.2 million by 2012.

In 2009, the Lakewood Police Department also set up a Fallen Officers Food Drive to honor the police officers. The food drive takes place annually near the date the shooting had occurred. The community can donate non-perishable food in support of the Emergency Food Network to the Lakewood Police Department.

The unfortunate incident of losing four beloved Lakewood police officers due to errors in the criminal justice system will not be forgotten. Much effort and reforms to combat the leniency of releasing violent criminals have been addressed since then. According to PoliceOne columnist, Richard Fairburn, police departments cannot always expect the unexpected, but they can train their officers to be more alert in their surroundings.

Unfortunately, Clemmons fell through the cracks because his mental health evaluations were ignored, and he was mistakenly viewed as safe enough to be released from prison. Strict regulations have been put in place to hopefully prevent another incident like at the coffee shop.

Today, Governor Jay Inslee wants to increase public safety by focusing on mental and behavioral issues. Overcrowding populations in prisons has been expensive and inefficient in rehabilitation. He intends to target mental illness and substance abuse as a way to effectively combat overcrowding within correctional facilities. Nearly half of inmates in jails and prisons suffer from a mental illness. By having a system with a stronger focus on treating inmates’ mental health, this reduces pressure from issues inside correctional facilities.

Did the criminal justice system make multiple mistakes in releasing a highly violent re-offender? Yes. It is a hard lesson to be learned. With a stronger focus on mental health and a strict look at inmates’ records before release, there is hope for increased public safety.