Demonstrators crowded into the Lynnwood City Hall council chambers Monday night demanding that the Lynnwood City Council address the recent death of Tirhas B. Tesfatsion, a Black woman who police say died by suicide earlier this month in the Lynnwood Jail.
Holding signs and photos of Tesfatsion, dozens of family, friends and supporters refused to allow the council to conduct business during its July 26 business meeting and called for accountability for the 47-year-old Lynnwood woman’s death. The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s office last week ruled the death was a suicide.
Prior to the meeting, demonstrators rallied outside of city hall. During their comments, members of Tesfatsion’s family accused the Lynnwood Police Department of having a role in her death and refused to believe that she would take her own life. Others spoke about the kind of person Tesfatsion was, recalling a loving woman with “the most beautiful smile” who enjoyed helping others look their best.
“She prettied up anybody, that was her job; to love and give and she should not have been taken away,” said Tesfatsion’s sister. “The most loving sister from the whole family is gone and there (are) no answers and we want answers.”
(Members of Tesfatsion’s family requested their names not be mentioned.)
Inside city hall, the council voted to amend its agenda to close the meeting with comments from the public instead of hearing them before conducting business. Council President George Hurst said the reason for the amendment was to dedicate the majority of the meeting to the speakers. However, once the demonstrators had filled the room, they refused to allow any business to be discussed until they had been given time to speak.
Mayor Nicola Smith struggled to call order and Council Vice President Jim Smith suggested she call for a recess. Instead, Mayor Smith and the council — with Councilmembers Shannon Session, Julieta Altamirano-Crosby and Ruth Ross attending remotely via Zoom — gave attendees the floor.
Tesfatsion’s family was joined by their attorney, James Bible, who at times was able to calm the crowd. During his comments, Bible said the woman’s death never should have occurred on the city’s watch.
“(Tesfatsion) didn’t die outside on the street corner or in her own home, she died in the care and custody of the Lynnwood city jail,” he said.
On July 13, the police department reported that Tesfatsion had been located unresponsive near the showering area of the women’s detention center. According to police records, she had been arrested the day before for DUI-related charges after police pulled her over for driving 30 mph on Highway 99, where the speed limit is 45 mph. Police said Tesfatsion denied drinking alcohol, but admitted to having taken oxycodone and anti-depressant medication.
The records also state that Tesfatsion had been previously arrested last December. Since the July 12 arrest was her second DUI in a seven-month period, she was booked into jail, said Lynnwood Police spokesperson Joanna Small.
The department requested an independent investigation be completed by the Kirkland Police Department. A July 21 update on the investigation stated that on the same day that Tesfatsion’s body was found, Lynnwood police provided Kirkland detectives with “full access” to the department facilities, staff reports and electronic/video data in order to conduct their investigation. The medical examiner’s ruling was consistent with Kirkland detectives’ findings, the Kirkland announcement said.
At the time of her death, Tesfatsion was one of four inmates in the jail. Police said she was the only female inmate, meaning that she had the entire women’s area of the jail to herself.
Some attendees called for video surveillance footage inside the jail to be released to the public. There are two video cameras that record the activity in the entire housing unit, except for the shower and toilet area where Tesfatsion was found. Police have said they offered to show the family the footage. One family member confirmed during the comments that she was offered the footage to view.
Still, members of Tesfatsion’s family said the department was culpable in Tirhas’ death and said that they would not trust the results of an investigation done by another law enforcement agency. As a result, the council unanimously voted to pass a motion from Hurst to ask for an outside investigation from the Washington State Attorney General’s Office.
Some family members said that Tirhas had been declared medically unfit by doctors to be incarcerated following her arrest. After she was arrested, police said they transported Tesfatsion to a hospital where her blood was drawn before being taken to the jail. There, she was seen by the jail’s doctor, who did not indicate any reason why she should not be booked.
A significant portion of the discussion focused on Lynnwood’s proposed Community Justice Center, which Bible and other attendees said they opposed. The $69 million project includes an expansion of the jail and municipal courts and a partnership with the neighboring Community Health Center to provide rehab and substance abuse services.
Last March, the council voted to assume $62 million of the debt for developing the project. During his comments, Bible pressured the council to delay approving the contract for the center for three months until the investigations into Tesfatsion’s death had been completed. He then suggested that the city should be using funds to provide housing for tenants at Whispering Pines — a low-income housing complex slated for demolition and redevelopment later this year.
“We’re asking you to use your power,” he said. “We’re asking you to do what we hope city council people would do.”
Initially, the council was set to vote to approve funding for the center but decided to delay the vote until its Aug. 2 meeting. The reason for the delay, Hurst said, was to allow more time during the meeting for public comments. In response, Bible accused the council of removing the discussion from the agenda after learning that the crowd would be attending the meeting and speaking against it. Hurst denied the claim.
“The intent was to open this meeting up to all public comments,” he said.
No police attended the meeting and the council assured attendees — who vowed to return for the council’s Aug. 2 meeting — that there would not be a police presence at the next meeting aiming to intimidate speakers.
In response to a request for a statement from the department, Small said the department will “refrain from comment right now in regards to the protest at last night’s city council meeting as the protesters were speaking directly to city council members.”
Lynnwood Today also reached out to the family’s attorney James Bible, but did not receive a response.
–Story and photos by Cody Sexton