Investigation into Tirhas Tesfatsion’s death says jail officers failed to perform their duties, violated public trust


Tirhas B. Tesfatsion

The officers working in the Lynnwood jail when 47-year-old Tirhas Tesfatsion died by suicide in July 2021 failed to perform their given duties and violated public trust. Those were among the findings of a Lynnwood Police Department investigation into Tesfatsion’s death, released late Friday afternoon.

On July 12, 2021, Tesfatsion was booked into the jail for driving under the influence. Approximately 36 hours later, police found her unresponsive in the bathroom. Life-saving efforts made by emergency responders were unsuccessful. Her death was ruled a suicide by the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office.

An outside investigation was conducted by the Kirkland Police Department, which revealed that custody officers did not check on Tesfatsion during the three hours prior to her death, violating the department’s policy to check on inmates every 60 minutes.

Lynnwood police also conducted their own investigation, with the results released Friday.

Lynnwood Police Chief James Nelson said that disciplinary action has been taken against two of the three officers on duty the night that Tesfatsion died. One officer no longer works for the City of Lynnwood Police Department, as he resigned shortly after Tesfatsion’s death. The two other officers were placed on a 180-hour unpaid suspension and a 72-hour unpaid suspension.

“Their conduct and lack of in-custody care cannot happen again,” Nelson said. “As we continue to take her death and the circumstances around her death seriously, we are also making the critical and fast steps to ensure the safety of all who enter the Lynnwood Jail in the future.”

The Snohomish County Prosecutor’s Office declined in October 2021 to file charges in the Tesfatsion’s death.

In an Oct. 28 memo to Kirkland police, Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell said that in reviewing the Kirkland police investigation report, “there is insufficient evidence to prove a crime was committed beyond a reasonable doubt.” The evidence provided, Cornell wrote, “establishes, tragically but conclusively, that Ms. Tesfatsion died by suicide and that neither the standard of criminal recklessness or criminal negligence can be met under the facts and the law.”

At about 2 p.m. July 13, Tesfatsion tied her jail uniform around her neck while sitting in her cell, according to video surveillance footage. She searched her jail cell for a place to attach the other end of the uniform. Footage then showed her take a plastic chair into the shower portion of the jail. In their report, Kirkland police said it was difficult to see the uniform tied around Tesfatsion’s neck because she was wrapped in a blanket. About an hour later, custody officers entered the cell to administer Tesfatsion’s medication and found her unresponsive in the shower. It took emergency responders about four minutes to get to the scene, where they began chest compressions and used a defibrillator, the report said.

During her booking, Tesfatsion told Lynnwood police she had never attempted suicide but said she had mental health issues, including depression, and that she was taking antidepressants.

As a follow-up to the Lynnwood investigation, Nelson said police will be focusing on assigning, conducting, recording and managing the cell check process. There will also be corrections made to the cell check frequency, process and supervisory oversight.

In addition, Nelson said that he will be ordering examinations of how police classify and house people in the jail, and consider how to provide limited-free access to outside communication via phone or text. Lynnwood police will also be re-examining suicidal screening tools to determine if there are better tools available, the police chief said.

Staff will be directed to work with mental health professionals to examine practices at other facilities and to provide recommendations to Nelson in the next six months on how to better manage mental health crises in the future.

“We are sorry for the loss of Tirhas Tesfatsion and apologize for the actions of the custody officers,” Nelson said. “We are committed to proactively ensuring a safe environment for all members of our community. As I have said before, it is my expectation that we will be vigilant in our public safety duties and serve with compassion and empathy to make sure a similar tragedy does not occur again.”

Shortly after Tesfatsion’s death, a crowd gathered outside Lynnwood City Hall to protest, and they also spoke out against Lynnwood’s plan to build a Community Justice Center. The Justice Center includes an expansion of the jail and municipal courts, as well as a partnership with the neighboring Community Health Center to provide rehab and substance abuse services. To address commuity concerns, a task force ecommended creation of a Community Recovery Center that will provide mental health and substance use disorder treatment, and will be co-located with the city’s Community Justice Center.

The Community Justice Center is now under construction, and the city council in October 2021 approved a contract for design of the Community Recovery Center. To date, the city has received $3 million in funding from Snohomish County and has submitted an application for a $1.9 million grant through the State Department of Commerce. The remaining funding is being sought from the Washington State Legislature.

— by Lauren Reichenbach

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