The family of Tirhas B. Tesfatsion filed suit last Wednesday in Western Washington U.S. District Court against the City of Lynnwood and five jail workers in her death while in custody. Tesfatsion, 47 at the time of her July 2021 death, was being held in the Lynnwood city jail after being arrested for driving under the influence.
Her death was ruled a suicide, but protests demanding accountability from the city brought additional scrutiny to the case, and questions concerning the culpability of Lynnwood officials have continued.
In addition to naming the City of Lynnwood as a defendant, the suit alleges an array of actions and inactions on the part of the five individually named defendants, all jail workers who were on duty at the time of her death and responsible for the health and general welfare of inmates and detainees. These include negligence, failure to properly monitor the victim while in custody, failure to respond to her requests for help and failure to observe her attempts to hurt herself.
According to documents filed with the court, Tesfatsion told jail staff at intake the day before her death that she suffered from depression and had recently consumed prescription medications. She was placed alone in a cell with bright lights, white walls and no sound, which left her effectively isolated and deprived of human contact.
The suit further alleges that “jail staff failed to properly screen, assess and recognize suicidal behavior, or provide the minimum observation required for any inmate/detainee” and failed to conduct required safety and welfare checks on Tesfatsion.
Her cell was equipped with cameras that allowed jail staff to observe her in real time and provided video records. These capture Tesfatsion’s final hours when she can be observed walking around her cell in distress, “at one point…attempting to tie her clothes in the form of a noose where she could hang herself,” to which jail staff failed to respond.
In addition, the suit alleges that these video records document extended gaps in required hourly welfare checks, some lasting more than three hours. Significantly, Tesfatsion was found dead nearly three hours after her previous welfare check. This was 2.5 hours late, and according to the suit, “…but for the Defendants’ failure to properly do their job, and perform required safety checks, Ms. Tesfatsion would be alive today.”
During this time, other jail surveillance video cameras captured the defendants “scrolling and talking on their cell phones,” and “looking at video content that does not appear to be work-related” in direct violation of the City of Lynnwood’s internet use policy. According to the suit, “…the Defendants were more focused and concerned with their own personal entertainment…rather than doing their duties as custody officers.”
The suit alleges that these actions constitute a violation of Tesfatsion’s Constitutional rights under the 4th and 14th Amendments, unlawful negligence and unlawful death as defined by state law, and that her treatment constituted racial and sexual discrimination under state anti-discrimination statutes. The suit seeks damages including compensating the family for pain and suffering, economic loss, and attorney’s fees.
City of Lynnwood spokesperson Nathan MacDonald said the city can’t comment on pending litigation.
— By Larry Vogel