Lynnwood City Council votes to delay decision on Community Justice Center

Demonstrators outside of Lynnwood City Hall (bottom right) say on Aug. 2 that they oppose the proposed Community Justice Center.

After more than two hours of public comments, the Lynnwood City Council Monday night voted to delay approving funding for construction of the proposed Community Justice Center. The delay comes in response to the death of Tirhas Tesfatsion, a Black woman who police say died by suicide in the Lynnwood Jail earlier this month.

Prior to its regularly scheduled Aug. 2 work session, the council held a special business meeting to allow for public input on the $69 million project, which includes redeveloping the city’s police department, jail and municipal courts and expanding to partner with the neighboring Community Health Center to provide substance abuse and rehabilitation treatments. The meeting was held virtually via Zoom after the city decided last week to return to meeting remotely, citing technical failures and guidance from public health officials. On Friday, the city also reported a person attending the meeting had tested positive for COVID-19.

By a 4-3 margin, the council voted to delay approving a $56 million contract with Forma Construction Company to build the new center. Voting against were Councilmembers Jim Smith, Julieta Altamirano-Crosby and Patrick Decker. The motion to delay voting was made by Council President George Hurst, who said the council should wait until Tesfatsion’s family has more information about her death.

“I cannot vote on a contract to build a Community Justice Center while this family is without closure on what occurred in our city jail,” he said.

On July 13, the Lynnwood Police Department reported that Tesfatsion had been found unresponsive in the jail after she was arrested for a drug-related DUI charge. An investigation was launched by the Kirkland Police Department. The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office later ruled her cause of death was a suicide. During the investigation, police offered to show the family video surveillance footage from inside the jail before Tirhas’ death. Tesfatsion’s sister said she refused to watch the video, but the family’s lawyer, James Bible, said Monday he has since seen the footage.

A week ago, a crowd of demonstrators filled the Lynnwood City Hall council chambers, demanding accountability for Tesfatsion’s death. During the meeting, the council agreed to request an outside investigation from the Washington State Attorney General’s Office. However, the state attorney general’s office denied that request last week, stating they lacked authority over the matter.

City staff and the police department have begun their own investigation into Tesfatsion’s death. Hurst said the city is also waiting to hear back from the Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office on any possible criminal charges based on the report from the Kirkland police detectives.

The city has touted the Community Justice Center as a way to reduce recidivism, but critics say it would just be another jail used for incarcerating people of color. Prior to the Aug. 2 vote, the council heard more than two hours of public comments from people testifying against the center. Speakers included members of Tesfatsion’s family, who continued to demand answers for her death. Dissatisfied with the medical examiner’s findings, family members expressed grief and frustration while speaking to the council,which was also seen Monday night.

“We need some answers, and we need it now,” said Tesfatsion’s sister, who previously asked not to be named.

Though the meeting was not in person, demonstrators gathered outside of Lynnwood City Hall Monday holding signs and pictures of Tirhas and they also dialed into the council Zoom meeting to speak against the jail.

During the two and half hours of public comments, the council heard testimony from people about their experiences with law enforcement. Most of the comments, while emotional, remained civil and adhered to the three-minute time limit. On two separate occasions, speakers insulted councilmembers using explicit language while making personal attacks, prompting city staff to mute their microphones.

The project was priced at $64 million, but shortages in building materials resulted in a $5 million increase. Plans for the jail portion of the project include expanding the facility– which currently has fewer than 50 beds — to include 124 beds for inmates. With more jail space, the city intends to cover some of the project repayment by contracting with neighboring law enforcement agencies to house their inmates. At the time of her death, Tesfatsion was one of four incarcerated in the jail — and the only woman in the woman’s area of the jail — and now the family is asking how police expect to be able to handle more inmates.

“You guys couldn’t even protect one person and that is the reason why you guys don’t deserve to open a jail,” Tesfatsion’s sister said. “First, you need to make sure you keep your eye on the ones you have now and it’s not fair. People’s lives matter.”

Tesfatsion’s death has also caught the attention of state officials representing the 32nd Legislative District, including Reps. Cindy Ryu and Lauren Davis and Sen. Jesse Salomon. Together, the three lawmakers sent a letter to the council prior to the Monday meeting expressing interest in using state funding to turn a portion of the jail beds into community behavioral health beds. In it, they also stated that Snohomish County saw a record number of drug overdoses last year (232 reported deaths).

In addition, the letter urged the council to delay voting on the matter for six weeks and create a task group aimed at reviewing plans for the project and finding ways to incorporate more behavioral health services. Speaking after the meeting, Rep. Davis said the state has a “deep interest” in investing in behavioral health beds as opposed to funding jail beds. The number of beds that would be designated for behavioral health services is not known at this time, Davis added.

“My interest really here is trying to bring some healing to the community, which has become divided,” she said. “And to think about, is there a way we can bring more folks along and have more voices heard and create a win-win where we actually…reduce the number of jail beds, create other services that are sorely needed.”

Davis said the city could receive funding through the state Department of Commerce’s Behavioral Health Facilities (BHF) Program. The most likely option, Davis said, would be for the city to receive a direct allocation of funds from the state’s capital budget.

Speaking against the vote to delay a decision on the jail, Council Vice President Smith stressed that the project is more than a new jail. He called it a multifaceted building aimed at improving the existing jail, which has received multiple space study needs that say it is not currently large enough. With the larger facility, Smith said the city would be able to offer the services that speakers were asking for during their comments.

“It includes services that will help those that have mental issues, it will help those that have drug issues, it will help address those immediately when they come into our jail portion of (the center),” he said.

An increasingly agitated Smith then praised the police department and said that people of color are not disproportionately arrested in Lynnwood.

“There’s good things to be said about our police department,” he said.

The council is set to continue the discussion at its Sept. 13 meeting.

–By Cody Sexton

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