Remembering the Lakewood Four

We will never forget: One year after four Wash. LEOs were gunned down, a memorial to the slain officers has been unveiled at the Forza Coffee shop

One year ago today — November 29, 2009 — four law enforcers were gunned down in cold blood by a man who had been released on bail less than a week prior to his ambush at a coffee shop in Lakewood, Washington. Shortly after 0800 hours, Sgt. Mark Renninger, Officer Ronald Owens, Officer Tina Griswold, and Officer Greg Richards were murdered by Maurice Clemmons — a gunman who had a history of incarceration for violent offenses and who had recently been arrested for rape of a child and assault.

The PoliceOne Video Team has produced a memorial film to mark this solemn anniversary, which I encourage you to watch before reading on. Click “Play” on the image to the immediate right of this paragraph... 

The Tragedy at Forza Coffee
According to the after-action report obtained by PoliceOne, Sgt. Renninger was seated facing east with a half wall behind him and the interior wall to his left. Officer Griswold was seated facing north with her back to the open shop, and Officer Owens was seated facing south with his back to the north wall. Officer Richards was at the counter and not yet seated. Renninger and Officer Owens had their laptop computers out on the tables. Officer Griswold had only food and a drink on the table.

Clemmons reportedly entered the coffee shop and was greeted by the barista serving Officer Richards. Clemmons walked directly to the officers’ tables, turned, and shot Officer Griswold in the back of the head, killing her instantly. He then shot Renninger in the right side of the head, killing him instantly. Then, according to the report, Clemmons’ Glock malfunctioned and Officer Owens engaged him in a life-or-death fight. Clemmons produced a second firearm — a .38 caliber revolver — and shot Officer Owens in the head, killing him near instantly.

Officer Richards, who had also closed distance on Clemmons but started much further away than Officer Owens, continued in the physical confrontation with Clemmons. During the struggle, Clemmons fired the .38 revolver several more times, and Officer Richards’ TASER and TASER holster were ripped from his duty belt. With his .40 Glock, Richards shot Clemmons once in the torso, but Clemmons was somehow able to get control of the pistol and shot Richards in the head, killing him instantly.

All four leave behind children and family.

Law Enforcers Under Attack
“While we always knew a trapped rat would fight to the death when backed into a corner, we are now seeing the killers take aggression to a whole new level ... they are hunting us!” writes PoliceOne Columnist Dick Fairburn in his December 2010 column (presently scheduled to run one week from today, on December 6th).

“The recently released analysis of the coffee shop killing of four officers in Lakewood proves this point,” Fairburn says. “That killer walked calmly into the presence of four uniformed officers and opened fire. The first two officers went down instantly to execution-style head shots. The remaining two officers attempted to engage the killer physically, and the felon’s first sidearm was found to have malfunctioned, but he produced a second handgun and killed the third officer, again with a head shot. The fourth officer put a round in the bastard, but it was tragically too little, too late, and the fourth hero was also murdered in cold blood.”

Clemmons reportedly had had no formal firearms training, and according to testing later conducted by the Lakewood PD investigators, his attack lasted less than one minute. Immediately after killing those four police heroes, and still in possession Officer Richards’ duty weapon — leaving behind the two guns he had brought to the assault — Clemmons then fled on foot to an awaiting getaway vehicle. After a two-day manhunt that involved hundreds of officers, Officer Benjamin L. Kelly of the Seattle Police Department came upon another would-be ambush by Clemmons.

But on this day, it would be Clemmons, and not another cop, who would die.

Street Survival Seminar Instructor and PoliceOne Columnist Betsy Brantner Smith wrote late last year that when Officer Kelly observed the trap — a 1990 Acura on the street with the hood up and the engine running — and “noticed a male approaching the driver's side of the patrol car from behind. Kelly immediately exited his vehicle, recognized Clemmons and began issuing orders.”

“Ben Kelly ended this one-man war on Washington-area crime-fighters,” she wrote, ending the biggest and most vigorous manhunt in Washington law enforcement history.

PoliceOne Columnist Dan Marcou told me today, “Officer Ben Kelly taught all law enforcement a valuable lesson. When facing a killer, shoot back first!”

Digital Distractions and Lessons Learned
Much has been made of the fact that Renninger and Owens had laptop computers out on the tables, but the after-action report stated that “there was not any one thing that we found [that] could have been done that would have prevented the murders ... We, as police, are in public places as a matter of routine. It is unrealistic to expect us to have guns drawn at every member of the public who walks by.”

That said, it is clear that one lesson to be learned from the Lakewood incident is the need for ever-present vigilance.

PoliceOne Columnist and Street Survival Seminar Instructor Dave Smith said in the above video, “That’s the story of the Lakewood tragedy. Four officers — four of our brothers and sister — fallen in a horrible ambush ... you owe it to them to not just to keep their memory, but to learn the lessons of the story.”

“I think the best way to honor such fallen officers is to honestly assess what happened and strive to constantly improve our training and tactics to avoid having any other officers go unprepared for a similar attack,” Fairburn told me this morning. “Another way we must honor these officers is to make sure their families will forever be cherished and supported by their fellow officers and community.”

Marcou added that all officers must train like their life depends on it. “There is no safe haven on your beat for the modern day police officer, and no safety in numbers for the modern day police officer. Now that our squads offer technological sensory overload, officers must constantly, as we patrol, as we write reports, during stops and contacts, avoid technological tunnel vision. We must aggressively pay attention.”

The authors of the after-action report — Detective Jeff Paynter, Officer Brian Markert, Officer Michael L. O’Neill, and Assistant Chief Michael Zaro — concluded, “This incident was akin to a suicide bomber walking into a coffee shop and, without notice, detonating an explosive. The difference here is there were specific victims targeted and the suspect did not die in the attack.”

In Memoriam...
Yesterday, a memorial to the four slain officers was unveiled at the Forza Coffee shop, and a memorial service was held this morning. This page will remain as an ongoing memorial where you can your comments in the area below.

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