LYNNWOOD, Wash., August 4, 2021 – The Lynnwood City Council voted, at its business meeting Monday, to postpone the vote to award the construction contract of the new $64 million Community Justice Center to FORMA Construction Company until September 13. The Council hopes that postponing the vote will allow more time to further investigate the Lynnwood Jail in-custody suicide of Tirhas Tesfatsion and utilize a task force that will reexamine the justice center’s programs and purpose.
Click here for a look inside the proposed Community Justice Center site plan.
Following a series of emotional public comments, many involving vulgarity insulting council members, council president George Hurst motioned to postpone the contract award for the Lynnwood Community Justice Center. The motion passed 4-3 with councilmembers Shannon Session, Christine Frizzell, George Hurst, and Ruth Ross voting yes. Councilmembers Patrick Decker, Julieta Altamirano-Crosby, and Jim Smith dissented.
Council president Hurst supports Mayor Nicola Smith in establishing a task force which, according to Julie Moore, Public Affairs Officer for the city of Lynnwood, is intended to pull together a focus group that will examine the scope of the Community Justice Center project and evaluate if the city can incorporate additional mental health or diversion services.
The Kirkland Police Department completed its independent investigation two weeks ago which has been submitted to the Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office for review.
Last Monday the city council requested a second independent investigation by the Washington State Attorney General’s Office into the suicide of Tirhas Tesfatsion. The next day, the Attorney General’s Office declined the Council’s request.
“We legally cannot initiate an investigation or prosecution without a formal referral from the county prosecuting attorney or the Governor. We have received no such referral,” their response stated.
“My opinion is this isn’t enough. I’ve authorized a full internal investigation so that we can truly understand what happened from the moment our officers made contact with Tirhas,” Mayor Smith said during Monday’s meeting.
Mayor Smith shared that she has asked Louis Harris, Mukilteo councilman and Vice President of the NAACP of Snohomish County, and former Edmonds city councilman Tom Mesaros, to lead this investigation. The City has appointed a family liaison, commander Cole Langdon, who has been in contact with Tirhas’ family and attorney James Bible.
Participating in public comments was Tirhas’ family’s attorney James Bible who urged the council to focus on affordable housing rather than focusing on a justice center. As someone who has seen the surveillance footage, Bible observed that nobody came to Tesfatsion’s aid as she died.
According to the Kirkland PD’s report, Tesfatsion’s shadow stopped moving at 2:02 p.m. The next physical check was conducted at 3:00 p.m. Adhering to Lynnwood Police Department Policy #C602, the next physical checks after her meal at 12:06 p.m. would have been at no later than 1:06 p.m. and 2:06 p.m.
Between 12:50 p.m. and 1:20 p.m. Tesfatsion was pacing in her cell. She made several phone calls that were not accepted by the caller between between 1:22 p.m. and 1:27 p.m.
Here are a few question on everybody’s mind.
Would physical checks no later than 1:06 p.m., 2:06 p.m., or 2:27 p.m. (one hour after she used the phone) have prevented this tragedy? Did officers virtually observe Tesfatsion make the phone calls between 1:22 p.m. and 1:27 p.m. that went unanswered? What if the receiving party had accepted just one of her calls, could that have prevented this tragedy? Was there a delay in obtaining Tesfatsion’s medication?
The U.S. National Library of Medicine states that “permanent brain damage begins after only 4 minutes without oxygen, and death can occur as soon as 4 to 6 minutes later.”
Bible also stated that the justice center makes no “financial” or “human rights” sense citing that there are only a couple people in the Lynnwood jail currently and the facility rarely sees more than three to five inmates.
Joanna Small, Public Affairs and Communications Manager for Lynnwood PD, informed the Lynnwood Times that Bible’s numbers are correct given COVID protocols put in place in March, but added that the Lynnwood Jail, under normal circumstances, averages at full-capacity, or almost full capacity, of about 46 inmates.
Washington State Representative Lauren Davis’ Letter to Council
Lynnwood councilmembers collectively received a letter, 18 minutes before the meeting, signed by state representatives of the 32nd legislative district – Rep. Cindy Ryu (D), Rep. Lauren Davis (D), and Senator Jesse Salomon (D) – lending support to the notion of dedicating a portion of the Community Justice Center to be allocated for community behavioral health beds. The letter also requested a six-week delay of the construction contract vote to allow for a small stakeholder group to rethink the design the Community Justice Center.
Rep. Davis shared with the Lynnwood Times that her intent reaching out to the council was to ask “council members to consider a time-limited delay of the vote in order to explore a potential partnership with the state wherein we could construct a portion of the proposed project as a behavioral health facility, in lieu of additional jail beds.”
Davis made contact with Mayor Smith and some council members privately to discuss the tension of the Community Justice Center project and a potential path forward that could bring healing to the city of Lynnwood. While she initiated this conversation, for the most part, there was one instance in which councilwoman Frizzell reached out to her.
Although Davis attended Monday’s meeting, she did not share any public comments on her request.
“I attended the entire meeting but chose not to speak during public comment because I wanted to cede my time to our Black and Brown community members to have their voices heard,” Davis told the Lynnwood Times.
Lynnwood Citation Statistics
According to the City’s 2019 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, it is believed that Lynnwood’s daytime population is considerably more than its residential population of 39,600 as Lynnwood is the retail mecca of Snohomish County with 3,573 business licenses and employs over 21,700 people.
By 2035, Lynnwood is expected to grow to a population of 85,000 with more than 24,000 Lynnwood Link Extension commuters.
In 2020, a total of 3,854 infractions/citations were issued by the Lynnwood PD. Total citations issued to whites and blacks were slightly higher relative to residential population in Lynnwood. Asians were significantly lower; whereas, Hispanic and those identified as “Other” were slightly lower.
In terms of criminal citations, whites and black were issued significantly higher citations relative to residential population in Lynnwood compared to other races. Asians were significantly lower.
Blacks and other were issued a slightly higher number of infractions relative to residential population in Lynnwood compared to other races. Asians were significantly lower.
In its 2020 Biased-Based Policing/Racial Profiling Annual Report, each Lynnwood police officer is required to complete anti-bias training. In 2020, over 100 officers completed such training of 106 fulltime staff and personnel. Department personnel, in conjunction with other city staff, participated in multiple trainings for the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) throughout 2019.
Discussion to Delay Project
Councilmembers heard many infuriated speakers during the public comments section enduring insults and scrutiny. Out of 51 public comments, one was in favor of the Community Justice Center; however, majority of those that spoke did not live in Lynnwood.
Comments shared a common belief that the council’s consideration of a new justice center is ultimately rooted in racism and that the funding toward the justice center could better be utilized toward behavior health, substance abuse, and affordable housing.
Among those speaking in opposition was Tirhas’ niece Makda Gray.
“I think it’s ridiculous that we’re grieving, and you guys are talking about a jail you’re trying to build and it’s not doing anything for the community but depopulating people from the streets – to put them in a cage…Jail brings mental illness to these people, it don’t help them at all,” Gray said. “Show some respect for my family and I, please.”
The singular voice in favor was Lynnwood resident Sandy Trevino.
“I understand where everyone is coming from, but we cannot make this political, this is about what’s best for the city. I know people are mad but there is a lot of things we can do in our community. We need representation in our criminal justice system,” Trevino said.
During the council meeting, dozens of Lynnwood residents held a “Keep Lynnwood Safe” rally in front of the Lynnwood Police Department.
“I think it is very sad what happened to Tirhas Tesfatsion. But I think it is also sad that they are using that to block the constriction of the new [justice] center,” said one Lynnwood resident at the rally.
“I am a Lynnwood resident. I am here to support our police and to let the city council know that low crime rates are the best thing you can do for the city of Lynnwood,” Julie Anderson, another rally attendee told the Lynnwood Times.
Councilwomen Sessions and Frizzell shared common sentiments in delaying the project.
“If we can to that [reduce recidivism] in a compassionate way, I think we owe it to people,” said Frizzell. “I am willing to put our decision on hold until the 13th of September, to gather more information, to gather more perspective.”
Councilmen Smith and Decker argued that the decision to delay awarding the contract to FORMA Construction Company only delays implementing improvements to the current facility.
Councilman Decker supported going forward with the Justice Center noting that an improved justice center would potentially been able to prevent the tragedy of Tirhas’ death with better technology, better facilities, better monitoring, and better health care.
“The medical center in our current jail is in what literally used to be a broom closet,” Decker said. “That is not how we should be prepared to treat medical emergencies in our jail.”
Decker also mentioned that an improved justice facility would bring mental health providers and drug abuse counselors “literally to the doors of those who need it most.”
Councilman Smith empathized with the family and believes the new facility addresses a far majority of the concern from callers.
“… I cannot even imagine if one of my daughters had done something like that.. I cannot understand the sadness,” Councilman Smith said.
He continued, “The Community Justice Center is a multifaceted building that will greatly improve the facility we currently have. The Criminal [Community] Justice Center will offer more services to 95% of the subject matter that was talked about tonight. If we do not move forward, we still have the old jail. This was 20 years in the making and should have been done a long time ago.”
In March of this year, the council passed the bond funding to pay for the Community Justice Center. Currently Lynnwood PD outsources to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Jail and facilities as far as Yakima to house inmates when at capacity at a cost of $175 per day. In the project’s feasibility study, the city estimated it would avoid an expense of $1.5 million a year by housing inmates at the new Community Justice Center.
Councilwoman Altamirano-Crosby shared that she received threats and intimidation to delay awarding the Community Justice Center contract. During the meeting, she was called a “c*nt” twice by callers and was singled out.
“To the family I am very sorry for your lost,” Altamirano-Crosby stated in her opening remarks. “… I was raised to believe in a civil discussion… I have also received threaten emails and phone calls to intimidate me to change my vote. These actions do not serve our election process and does not promote fair representation for all.”