A few weeks ago the families of four slain Lakewood, WA police officers announced that they were filing a claim against Pierce County for $182 million. The first step toward filing a lawsuit, the claim said that the county could have done more to prevent Maurice Clemmons from killing the officers as they sat in a Parkland coffee shop in November, 2009.
The (Tacoma) News Tribune reporter Adam Lynn broke the claim story the morning of April 8th, 2010 and in the minutes following his posting on the Lights and Sirens blog, reader comments began to pour in.
The hours and days following the announcement of the claim, comments on TheNewsTribune.com jumped to three times the daily average. Article and blog post commenters were angry, to put it mildly.
The common commenting theme went something like this: We as a community were terribly saddened by the tragic loss of the four officers, but we’re kinda peeved that the families are asking for more money, especially after the community’s generous outpouring.
User nwindependent ‘s comment reflected the majority opinion of the comment thread:
“For these families to lawyer up and sue the county is really suing the very people that lined the procession routes, attended the funerals, bought the t-shirts etc. and how is lining the lawyers pockets with settlement money serve anyone here? I would have hoped that the families would have gone the route of trying to organize and change the laws on the books before suing the county and the very taxpaying citizens that support them.”
The News Tribune’s online (and unscientific) Hot Button poll garnered 3,600 votes — 83 percent of poll voters did not think the families were justified in filing a claim, while just 17 percent favored filing a claim.
A follow-up story the day after the families’ announcement spelled out the long list of monetary entitlements the families are eligible to receive, including Federal and state death benefits, pension benefits, tuition waivers, worker compensation benefits and a trust fund brimming with $2.2 million in donations from the community.
Of the almost 600 anonymous comments spread over three days of coverage, the number of insensitive, mean or downright profane comments — attributes that opponents of anonymous commenting often trumpet as the reason to not allow them — could be counted on one hand (and were removed after our commenting community flagged them).
A few comments even offered advice on how the families could have better handled their collective grievance:
“My point was that if the families of the Lakewood officers had been proactive at the time the lawsuit was filed, holding a press conference in which they could express regret that they had to take it to the level of a lawsuit, they could have deflected a large part of the anger that is being expressed against them now. Just my opinion – I could be wrong. It would have made ME less mad, anyway.” User drummerswidow
But the sheer number of comments could not be ignored. About 48 hours after the initial story, and reeling from the negative public outpouring on Seattle talk radio and in TheNewsTribune.com’s comment areas, three of the four families dropped their intent to file a claim. One family’s $48 million claim still stands.
(BTW, talk radio’s anonymous commenting format started a decade before the invention of the World Wide Web, and today accounts for a weekly audience approaching 100 million people according to the Pew Center for Excellence in Journalism.)
Over 140,000 people are registered at TheNewsTribune.com, a prerequisite for receiving our e-mail newsletters and for commenting. Of those, about 2,000 users comment during an average month, and about 200 of those do so religiously.
The large number of everyday readers that weighed in on the claim story showed the true potential of community forums — that the newsmakers do read them, and sometimes make sensible decisions after they do.
To read complete coverage of the Lakewood,WA shootings, go to www.thenewstribune.com/lakewoodshooting/.