Say Their Names, WA

Content note: mention of injury or death by violence.

This series features the portraits of 6 Washington state residents whose lives were lost to police violence, and the names of an additional 14 Washingtonians whose injuries or deaths during encounters with law enforcement raised questions in their communities.

Daniel Covarrubias, Wangsheng Leng + 5

Wangsheng Leng, a 66-year-old with Alzheimer’s; Daniel Covarrubias, a Native crafter and father of 7…

Renee Davis, Andrea Thomas Churna + 4

Renee Davis, an early childhood educator and mother of 3; Manuel Ellis, a musician and father of 2…

Charleena Lyles, Tommy Le + 4

Tommy Le, an avid reader about to graduate from high school; Giovonn Joseph-McDade, a Green River College student…

The portraits feature 3 women and 2 members of tribes within Washington state. The stories of women and Native people are often less visible in the larger conversation around police violence.

Ironically, Charleena Lyles and Andrea Thomas Churna were both killed after summoning police to their homes to help them. Like Lyles and Churna, Renee Davis was experiencing mental health issues at the time of her fatal encounter with police officers. Like Davis, Lyles was a survivor of domestic violence. Churna was a victim of stalking. All three women were mothers of young children.

Family and Community Response

The 2019 dismissal of a wrongful death lawsuit for Renee Davis’ death eventually led to the State Legislature passing the reform bill Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5263 in 2021. Renee Davis was a member of the Muckleshoot Tribe, which, together with Davis’ family, the Suquamish Tribe, ACLU of Washington, Washington State Association for Justice, and Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, supported ESSB 5263.

The fatal shooting of another Native woman – Jacqueline Salyers of the Puyallup Tribe – by Tacoma police in 2016 galvanized her tribe and family to advocate for Initiative 940 in partnership with other Washington state communities of color. I-940, which required police de-escalation training and mental health intervention, passed in 2018.

The three men whose portraits are featured here span a wide age range  – Tommy Le, a slight, baby-faced 20-year-old about to graduate from high school; Daniel Covarrubias, a 37-year-old father of 7 from the Suquamish tribe; and Wangsheng Leng, a 66-year-old immigrant suffering from Alzheimer’s.

After Daniel Covarrubias’ death, his mother Marilyn Covarrubias became active with the group De-Escalate Washington, which sponsored Initiative 940. Initiative 940 passed in 2018. The chair of the Suquamish Tribe, to which Covarrubias belonged, testified in support of ESSB 5263, which passed in 2021. The cousin of Charleena Lyles and family members of Renee Davis also testified in support of ESSB 5263.

Settlements and Verdicts

The following table contains is a partial list of police violence incidents in WA that resulted in a settlement and/or a jury verdict in a civil suit as of August 2022. Dates are approximate. Ongoing cases civil cases and criminal cases are not listed here.

Show table

While acknowledging that each case is different, one cannot help but notice that the settlement amounts do not necessarily relate to the needs of the bereaved families. The family of a white woman with one child received a settlement of $7.5M, the family of a Native and Black woman with 3 surviving children received a settlement of $1.5M, while the family of a Native man with 7 children received a settlement of $0.5M. In all three incidents, police had believed, mistakenly or not, that the victim had access to a firearm at some point during the encounter.

For cases that went before a jury, verdicts can vary widely. A federal jury awarded more than $15M to the family of a Black and white man fatally shot by a police sniper. A federal jury awarded only $1 to a deaf Black woman who was injured by police, wrongly arrested, and then held in jail without access to an interpreter, even though they acknowledged that her rights were violated. A federal jury sided with the police officers who caused the death of an elderly Asian immigrant man with Alzheimer’s. In all three cases, the unarmed victims were injured/killed within or in front of their homes.

HB 1202

Perhaps there is no solution to the arbitrariness of “justice”.  But HB 1202, the Peace Officer Accountability Act, may give Washington families an additional avenue to recovering damages. According to ACLU-WA’s HB 1202 Fact Sheet (published in Jan 2022):

Today, victims and their families must use a federal law (42 USC 1983, referred to as a 1983 claim) to sue a peace officer or department. Instead of relying on this federal law, Washingtonians will be able to use state law to seek justice and a remedy… The justice system has two parts, criminal and civil, and HB 1202 fills in the gaps where the civil system has been a barrier to accountability.