Lynnwood settles for $1.7 million after 2021 suicide at city jail

Jail staff reportedly committed 16 safety check violations before they found Tirhas Tesfatsion, 47, unresponsive in her cell.

Tirhas Tesfatsion (GoFundMe)

Tirhas Tesfatsion (GoFundMe)

LYNNWOOD — Two years after a death in the city jail, Lynnwood agreed last week to pay $1.75 million in a settlement with the family of a woman who killed herself while in custody.

In July 2021, police arrested Tirhas Tesfatsion, 47, for investigation of driving under the influence. During the 32 hours she spent in jail, security footage showed jail guards scrolling and talking on their phones, with one staff member completely unaccounted for while on duty, the complaint alleged.

A day and a half later, Tesfatsion was found unresponsive in the jail restroom.

The lawsuit, filed in July in U.S. District Court in Seattle, noted “significant and noteworthy time lapses” when the staff should have conducted safety checks on Tesfatsion. Staff reportedly committed 16 violations of safety check policy during her time in the city jail.

“During her confinement, (Lynnwood Municipal Jail) failed to perform their duties and violated public trust when they failed to provide the bare minimum jail security and safety for Ms. Tesfatsion,” the lawsuit read.

The settlement was finalized Sept. 14, two months after lawyers for Tesfatsion’s estate James Bible and Jesse Valdez filed the complaint.

In settling the case, the city did not admit wrongdoing.

“The City recognizes the grief this tragic death has caused to the family of Tirhas Tesfatsion and our community,” city spokesperson Maren McKay wrote in a statement. “The lack of in-custody care and supervisory oversight were not in alignment with our values and lessened the public’s trust in our organization. We are committed to doing better and learning from this tragedy.”

“The family of Mrs. Tirhas Tesfatsion has been dedicated to achieving justice for their loved one,” Bible said in a phone interview Monday. “Not only are they achieving justice for Tirhas, but change locally and throughout the state of Washington.”

Bible said he will be meeting with Lynnwood city officials to discuss new mental health training for city employees.

The complaint primarily cites Kirkland police’s independent investigation, a nearly 200-page report on the circumstances that led to Tesfatsion’s death.

Just after midnight July 12, police booked the Lake Forest Park woman into the Lynnwood jail. She reported to staff she suffered from depression and would be going through withdrawal from prescription medication she consumed the day before. In the “high risk” category of the screening, the box for “Mental Health” was checked, the Kirkland investigation found.

Jail staff prescribed her several medications, including antibiotics, antihistamine and an anti-inflammatory — but no antidepressants, according to the complaint.

Before her death, security footage showed Tesfatsion undressing and presumably trying to find an area to hang herself, the lawsuit said.

After jail staff gave her food at 12:06 p.m. July 13, footage captured on-duty jail staff on their cellphones in between their last check-up and her death. No one had contact with her until she was found unresponsive at 3:01 p.m. in the Lynnwood jail, court documents say.

Lynnwood police policy required safety checks on inmates once every hour, the lawsuit says.

Between 12:57 p.m. and 2:58 p.m., one corrections officer on duty was gone and “no logs could account for him,” the lawsuit alleged.

“If a member of the Lynnwood City Jail Staff had taken the time to simply lift their heads up from their cell phones and observe the activities Ms. Tesfatsion while she was in the jail, they would have seen that many of her actions warranted immediate protective intervention,” the complaint read.

From 2000 to 2019, suicide accounted for about one-third of all jail deaths, according to a Bureau of Justice Statistics data collection.

After the investigation, two corrections officers were suspended without pay. One staff member resigned.

“Ms. Tesfatsion should be alive today,” the lawsuit read. “And through their neglect, Defendants forced her to endure substantial pain and suffering, caused her death and deprived her sons … of the society, companionship, love and other consortium of their mother.”

In October 2021, Lynnwood broke ground on the Community Justice Center, which will include a new jail and a separate mental health facility.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated a Lynnwood spokesperson did not comment on the settlement regarding the death of Tirhas Tesfatsion. A city spokesperson did respond Monday, but the response got lost in a reporter’s email spam filter:

Maya Tizon: 425-339-3434; maya.tizon@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @mayatizon.

Help is available

There are free and confidential resources for people in crisis or who know someone in crisis.

If there is an immediate danger, call 911.

Care Crisis Chat: imhurting.org (chat); 800-584-3578 (call).

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255, suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

Compass Health’s Mobile Crisis Outreach Team may be contacted at anytime by calling the Volunteers of America crisis line: 1-800-584-3578.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: afsp.donordrive.com.

The Snohomish Health District has a list of other local resources. snohd.org/200/Suicide-Prevention.

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