A jury assessed $3 million in punitive damages against Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro, finding that his department acted recklessly in the fatal shooting of Leonard Thomas. (Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

He grabbed his mother’s wrist and took her phone when she tried to call 911. They were having a family argument. And within hours 30-year-old Leonard Thomas, of Tacoma, Washington was dead, killed by a police sniper’s bullet, while holding his 4 year old son in his arms.

Leonard Thomas, a 30-year-old father, was killed by police. (Thomas family photo)
On Friday, July 14, 2017, a jury awarded the family of Leonard Thomas more than $15 million in one of the largest police-deadly-force verdicts in state history, against the Washington cities of Lakewood and Fife, as well as several SWAT officers.

The Federal jury decided that police violated the rights of a 30-year-old black man when a family argument escalated into an attack during which the man was shot by a SWAT sniper in front of his young son.

The family was awarded $6.5 million in punitive damages, $3 million against Lakewood Police Chief Mike Zaro, who was the SWAT commander that fateful night; $2 million against Lakewood Police Sgt. Brian Markert, who was the sniper who pulled the trigger; and $1.5 million against Pierce County Metro SWAT assault-team leader Mike Wiley, who is also a Lakewood police officer.

The Times reported that Wiley described the sniper bullet that killed Thomas on the front porch of his Fife home in 2013 while he held his 4-year-old son in his arms as a “frickin’ million-dollar shot.”

The jury awarded compensatory damages totaling $4 million to Thomas’ son, $1.885 million to his estate, and $1.375 million each to his mother and father.

“I’m shaking, to be honest,” said Annalesa Thomas, Leonard Thomas’ mother, who is now the guardian of his son. “I am so grateful to this jury and this verdict. Hopefully, this will make a change in policy and protocol. Lethal force should always be the last option.”

The incident all started when Annalesa Thomas called the police on June 23, 2013, after she had gone to Leonard Thomas’ home to get his child. Leonard Thomas, who had been sober for a year at that point, had started drinking again after the death of a childhood friend and had not been taking his medication for bipolar disorder.

Mother and son then got into an argument, which culminated in Leonard Thomas slapping the cellphone out of his mother’s hand while she was on the phone with police dispatch.

In what would have been a misdemeanor assault, officers responded by calling out SWAT, which, in turn, responded with 29 heavily armed officers and two armored assault vehicles.

The Times reported:

A four-hour standoff ensued, during which Thomas, 30, refused to come out of the house and was belligerent and verbally abusive toward officers; he was not armed and never threatened anyone, according to testimony.

Negotiators eventually convinced Thomas to let the boy go home with his grandmother. Thomas was on the front porch with a car seat and a backpack with the boy’s clothes when Zaro told officers not to let him back into the house with the boy and then ordered an explosive breach of the home’s back door by Wiley’s assault team.

Officers used plastic explosives to flatten the back door, shot the family dog, Baxter, at least five times, and rushed into the house. Other heavily armed officers charged the home as well.

Thomas, startled by the blast, gunshots and the sight of officers running at him, grabbed for his son and Markert shot him in the belly from 90 feet away with a .308-caliber rifle, claiming Thomas was trying to strangle the boy.

Thomas bled to death while officers dragged him and his son apart. According to testimony, his last words were, “Don’t hurt my boy.”

The youngster, Elijah Thomas, now 9, told reporters Friday night in televised interviews that he thought his father had done the right thing. “I think he was trying to protect me,” he said.

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