The Tacoma City Council will meet behind closed doors today with City Manager Eric Anderson to discuss recent revelations that Police Chief Don Ramsdell and police department spokesman Mark Fulghum misled the public four years ago about the Zina Linnik investigation.
“Eric Anderson and the Chief have a lot of explaining to do,” Councilman Ryan Mello said Monday. “First and foremost, I want to know why the public was misled and why we, the council, hadn’t heard about it until The News Tribune brought it out.”
Today’s executive session will be the first meeting about the case between the full council and Anderson since last week’s news stories by reporter Adam Lynn revealed Ramsdell and Fulghum withheld information and lied to the media about why the department delayed issuing an Amber Alert for nearly 12 hours after Linnik disappeared in 2007.
As Lynn reported on Wednesday, court documents recently filed in a wrongful death lawsuit brought against the city by the murdered girl’s family stated that Fulghum had fallen asleep early on July 5, 2007, after being requested at about 4 a.m. to issue an Amber Alert in the case. The alert ultimately wasn’t issued until about six hours later, at 10 a.m. on July 5 (Linnik disappeared about 9:40 p.m. on July 4).
But instead of publicly revealing that Fulghum had fallen asleep and failed to immediately follow through with the requested Amber Alert, Ramsdell and Fulghum later told reporters in 2007 the department delayed issuing the alert so detectives could gather more information to use in it.
After details about the delay emerged in court records and the media last week, Ramsdell and Anderson met with Lynn to discuss the case. Ramsdell apologized for not telling the newspaper the true reason for the delay. Anderson defended Ramsdell and denied that the chief’s actions amounted to lying.
“He didn’t include all the information. It was a stressful time. Things can slip, and they will,” the city manager said. “Is this man a liar? No. Not by omission or commission.”
Both men also defended Fulghum, saying the police department opted against punishing him for what was considered a “system failure.” (Fulghum, who had just finished a busy Fourth of July double-shift, was the only officer in the department authorized to issue an Amber Alert at the time – a policy that has since been changed, they said.)
(Child abduction experts say such Amber Alerts should go out within four hours of a child being kidnapped by a stranger. TPD was criticized for not issuing the alert earlier than it did. Terapon Adhahn, who pleaded guilty to raping and killing the 12-year-old girl, later told investigators he killed Linnik within 15 minutes of abducting her, according to court records.)
In an interview on Friday, Councilman Jake Fey expressed frustration that the revelations as reported in the newspaper had not been previously divulged to the council.
“The briefings that we have had in executive sessions on this topic have been few and far between,” he said, noting it has been months since council members have been updated on the family’s lawsuit.
“I learned about these issues in the paper,” Fey added. “Yes, I’m frustrated because ultimately, we’re going to be asked to make decisions about this. I think most elected officials would want to be prepared and informed about this kind of inflammatory information — about an incident that had so much emotional impact to this community — before it pops up in the news.”
The council also has a direct concern with how personnel and disciplinary decisions are made in such cases, Fey added.
“How disciplinary matters are handled by the city manager is a legitimate concern of ours,” Fey said. “How they’re handled sets a tone for the whole operation of the city. He sets the tone as a culture for the whole operation of city government, and that’s something we have a to be aware of to inform our decision-making.”
(As I reported in this story for the Seattle P-I in 2008, police officers who are caught in some kinds of official lies can face termination and losing their state police certifications. But many officers also avoid such discipline.)
Because of the family’s active lawsuit, Mello said he understood today’s meeting about issues involved in the Linnik case fall under the “pending litigation” exception for convening an executive session.
But Mello added he would also press for the council to make some kind of public statement, too.
“In my opinion, this is a significant breech of public trust,” Mello said. “We need to do something in public to demonstrate that lying is never tolerated — lying to the public, to the media, to the city council is never, ever OK.”