On April 21, Federal Way had what may be the most terrifying day in its history.
An apparent domestic dispute became a cold-blooded massacre that left five people dead, including the shooter, and left an entire community’s equilibrium in doubt.
The Federal Way Police Department held a community meeting three days later attended by local ministers and chaplains to help the neighborhood through the grieving process.
The evening was a dramatic and overpowering moment as the residents of the Pinewood Village Apartments met to reflect on what had happened in a way that only those now bonded together in the tragic shared experience could understand. They thanked the first responders, including eight officers who fired their weapons and who likely saved the carnage from being much worse.
Some comparisons to the shootings in Newtown and the bombings in Boston were sadly inevitable. It had only been a few days since we saw the mayor of Boston, the governor and police authorities describe the end of the Boston manhunt.
In Federal Way, a press conference was held as soon as possible after the event to ensure that the public, through the media, knew what had happened. But only police attended.
We didn’t hear from our political leaders until the community meeting three days later. The mayor, deputy mayor and the police chief expressed their condolences, and an officer went over the general outline of what had happened that fateful Sunday evening.
But the evening was as striking for what wasn’t discussed as for what was. In listening to the residents, it was clear that many were still in a state of shock and thankful to be alive. Processing the emotional impact of the murders was almost too overwhelming for many to comprehend.
Others, however, were starting to move to another level of predictable reaction that follows a tragedy. They were asking “how could this happen,” as questions about the murderer’s past brushes with the law and verbal domestic abuse problems with women had started to emerge from the media.
The ground rules stated by the police didn’t really allow the opportunity for substantive questions. Some caution, given the investigation, is expected. But the reluctance to engage citizens — whose neighborhood became a battlefield — in a more meaningful dialogue had a very chilling effect on some in the crowd.
The grief continues in Newtown, Conn., but now they are demanding changes in gun laws from their political leaders so it doesn’t happen again. In Boston, they are asking more pointed questions about “who knew what” and “when did they know it” as the possibility of recriminations starts to emerge.
Here in Federal Way, we haven’t reached that step in the grieving process. At least not yet. But questions are surfacing about how someone known to police and with a history of anger issues was able to possess guns.
Officials tell the public he had a legal right to own and carry a gun because he hadn’t done anything to warrant losing that right. That may be accurate, but now seems hollow and uncaring. He used that right to murder four people.
The evening was helpful as some needed the support that the police and chaplains provided. Others needed answers and assurances that their leaders would lead. But that wasn’t to be, and it was a missed opportunity to unite the community in a common goal.
Leaders are determined by how they handle a moment that is thrust upon them, not one they plan for. This was a time for our mayor and deputy mayor to not just console this city of 90,000 scared citizens, which they did well. They needed to answer the leadership question, “What are they going to do about it?” They didn’t even try.
It would have only taken a few moments to describe what the city’s plan of action was going to be.
But what a difference it might have made in the community healing process if the mayor or deputy mayor had asked this neighborhood to join them and help lead an effort to change laws regarding domestic violence against women, mental health, and the ease with which guns are obtained by those who shouldn’t have them.
The murderer was known to police. They knew he carried guns. And the last time he came to their attention, it was over another domestic case with a different woman. And he was driving the car of the woman he would later murder. Did the police follow up? The mayor could have offered that he would have his police department review their internal procedures to take a closer look in the future in similar circumstances — or ask more questions.
We should have heard that just talking about a tragedy isn’t enough. If everyone is left to work through their grief but nothing changes, we have undervalued the lives of the victims. Could these murders have been avoided by changing the laws? Maybe, maybe not. But citizens have a right to know that the people they elected are trying.
The story about the murders in Federal Way has been replaced on most front pages by another tragedy in another town. But this story didn’t happen in Connecticut, or Colorado, or Massachusetts. This time it happened here, right here, and four innocent people aren’t with their families anymore. For those families, this will never be over. Something positive can come out of this if changes are made. The Legislature is back in session in two weeks.
Are our leaders up to the challenge?