5 years after Lakewood: Leadership lessons learned

Chief Bret Farrar and Assistant Chief Mike Zaro have quietly done a lot of work in speaking with — and working with — agencies about what happened in Lakewood, the aftermath, and the lessons learned

Five years ago — on Sunday, November 29, 2009 — Sergeant Mark Renninger, Officer Ronald Owens, Officer Tina Griswold, and Officer Greg Richards were brutally murdered in an ambush attack committed by a lone assailant whose name does not merit mention. 

As is the case in so many tragedies, the word “Lakewood” is now an idea — an event — as much as it is a location. The lessons learned — on ambush prevention and response, as well as the perils of paroling dangerous felons — have been discussed widely among law enforcement, however several of the key lessons learned have gone largely unpublicized.

In the years since he lost those four heroes, Lakewood Police Chief Bret Farrar has quietly worked to help his agency heal and move forward, and he has traveled on his own time to help agencies who have had officers attacked and killed in the line of duty. Farrar humbly flies below the radar in this effort.

From Forza Coffee to CiCi’s Pizza
Mere days after I first met Chief Farrar at an event in Scottsdale, he and his wife Cindy arrived at the CiCi’s Pizza in Las Vegas — where two officers had been gunned down in an attack eerily similar to what took place at the Forza Coffee Shop on Steele Street – to meet the men and women of LVPD.

“I was in my civilian clothes, but I had my badge with me,” Farrar explained. “I tapped on the window, and they looked at me, like, ‘What do you want?’ Somebody finally came over and said, ‘Can I help you?’ and I showed him my badge and I said, ‘I’m from Lakewood and I heard what happened and my wife and I were in the area and wanted to pay our respects.’ The guy said, ‘Oh man, we were just talking about you guys’,” Farrar said.

Ferrar and his wife spent an hour and a half talking to the men and women from LVPD in that room. Interestingly, the Farrars also talked with the pizza parlor manager about what happened with the coffee shop after four officers were killed there. 

“I told them, ‘Hey, we made the conscious decision that we weren’t going to let the bad guy win. We wanted them to reopen the coffee shop. We rededicated it, and I was there the first morning they opened, and I bought the first cup of coffee.’ I think they’ve done kind of the same thing there in Las Vegas.”

Focusing on Family and Unity
Farrar said that that one of the biggest things he tells other chiefs is that no two incidents are the same. 

“I say, ‘You probably can’t do what I did the way that I did it. You’re going to have to assess your situation and make decisions based upon what you have in front of you and what’s happened and who’s involved — what the personalities are’,” Farrar explained. 

That having been said, some of Farrar’s actions may be good to bear in mind as potential best practices in the aftermath of similar incidents. 

For example, knowing that four officers were killed — and that the four families were spread throughout the region — Farrar recognized there was no way he could get to all four families in a reasonable amount of time to make notifications and to tell them what happened. Consequently, he and his staff designated specific individuals with peer support expertise to act as a liaison to the families, and he sent them out to contact all the families at once.

“The other decision that I made — which ended up being probably in hindsight one of the better decisions — was that we brought all the families together to the station that night at six o’clock to brief them on what we knew up to that point. They all came to the station and they all kind of bonded together. From an administrative standpoint, it made things a lot smoother with the families as far as setting up the memorial service. I had seen in the past where more than one officer was killed in the line of duty at the same incident and there was kind of a battling of memorials.”

Notably, Farrar did not address the media right away because he had five families to take care of — the fifth being his department. 

“At that point, my focus was on taking care of the families and taking care of the people who work for the department. I got the whole group together one evening and said, ‘Listen, I’m going to go talk to the media, and I want you guys to come with me. I want them to see that we’re a family and we’re together and that we have the resolve to see this through,” he explained. 

Farrar told the assembled group, “This is either going to make us or break us and it’s up to you. We can come through this with our heads held high and we can do our jobs and go out there and do what we’re supposed to do and we’ll persevere. We decided as a group that that’s what we were going to do.”

At the time of their tragedy, Lakewood had only been a department for about five years — it opened in 2004 with people pulled in from agencies from all over the area. Consequently, there were many officers who identified colleagues — at least in part — by the previous agency he or she worked for: ‘that county guy’ or ‘that Seattle guy.’

But after the incident on the morning of November 29, 2009, everyone was from the Lakewood Police Department. There departmental steel had been galvanized. 

When Chief Farrar did that first press conference, the whole department — about 140 sworn and non-sworn personnel — was standing at his side. 

Honoring the Fallen with Good Deeds
“When we were coming up on the one-year anniversary, feelings were still pretty raw, and you could tell by the way the media was acting that they would be really covering it. I was trying to think of a way we could have something positive to focus on, when my wife came up with the idea of a food drive. So we developed the first annual Fallen Officer Food Drive.”

The department had a big ceremony and the media focused on those good deeds, and not as much on the tragedy itself.

“That’s what these four people were all about — Ronnie and Greg and Tina and Mark were all about helping their community and being there for their community and giving back to their community so what better way to honor their memory than with a food drive?” 

November 26 marks the fifth annual food drive, which benefits the Emergency Food Network, based in Lakewood. Over the years, they’ve raised about $100,000 and roughly 250,000 pounds of food.

PoliceOne Members can help by donating here. In honor of Sergeant Mark Renninger, Officer Ronald Owens, Officer Tina Griswold, and Officer Greg Richards, I just did. 

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