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Family sues city for death

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Ramon Ayala Jr.

— The family of a man killed by police is seeking $1 million in a wrongful death lawsuit filed last Thursday.

The estate of Ramon Ayala Jr. claims lack of proper training “in the use of deadly force” prompted Sgt. Jeff Cunningham to act hastily in shooting and killing him on March 6, 2013. 

On that day, Ayala reportedly fired his handgun into the air at the corner of Tacoma and Harrison avenues, outside TW Market.

According to the lawsuit, Ayala, 27, was “suffering from severe emotional distress and mental illness” at the time and asked Officer Chico Rodriquez if he was going to kill him. 

The lawsuit said Rodriquez attempted to “de-escalate the situation” when Cunningham arrived on the scene and “made an inadequate and cursory survey of the area and situation before deploying deadly force” in shooting and killing the Outlook resident.

In October 2013, then county Prosecuting Attorney Jim Hagarty ruled the shooting justified.

Police maintained that Ayala aimed at police.

Ayala family attorney Bill Pickett disputes that assertion.

“He never pointed a gun at anybody,” Pickett said last night, noting Ayala was seeking “suicide by cop.”

“It was a negligent, wrongful killing,” he said.

“Just realize there are two sides to every story,” Cunningham countered. “None of the family members were at the scene and there were a number of independent witnesses.”

Ayala’s father, Ramon Ayala Sr., filed the lawsuit on behalf of the slain man’s children, Angel and Alex Ayala.

Pickett said the claim was filed last Thursday because the three-year deadline to file a wrongful death suit against the city was approaching.

“They’re seeking justice first and foremost,” Pickett said.

The only reason the family lists a dollar amount in the lawsuit is because state law requires it when submitting a notice of claim, he said.

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Donald Day

Initial claim

City Manager Don Day confirmed the city received a notice of claim for $1 million last October and forwarded it to insurer Washington Cities Insurance Authority.

He said the insurer did not respond to the Ayala claim, noting it was “… put on hold pending the lawsuit.”

Day said the practice is common.

Sunnyside and its insurance company had 60 days to reply to the claim, but never answered, Pickett confirmed.

“The city of Sunnyside had sufficient time to take a look at it,” he said. “When they didn’t respond, it prompted the next step.”

As of Monday morning, the city had yet to be served.

“We’re aware a lawsuit was filed,” Day said.

The suit, case No. 16-2-00590-39, is in Yakima Superior Court.

City study cited

The suit alleges political turmoil in city government and lack of Police Department leadership at the time led to “desperate training shortcomings,” including the use of deadly force.

The lawsuit points to a 2014 study — the city commissioned Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to survey the department.

The report, called the Loaned Executive Management Assistance Program, cited training issues.

“Other than daily training bulletins, use of force and deadly force policy or philosophy is not covered on an annual basis,” the report said.

Interviews with several officers, “...failed to produce an officer that could recall any recent training related to use of force and/or SPD’s use of force policies,” the report said.

The report was issued in November 2014, six months after the city hired Chief Al Escalara. Prior to that, the city had been without a permanent chief since 2011.

“No qualms”

Day and then-interim Police Chief Larry Dickerson, requested the study. Day stands by it, and still believes it benefits the city.

“I have no qualms about the report,” he said. “The report is what it is. If the officer screwed up it’s on us. If the officer is in the right, then he’s in the right.”

Day took exception to the lawsuit’s claim that lack of training led to Ayala’s shooting death.

“You don’t have to show you’ve been trained to protect yourself,” he said. “That’s not the standard of evidence.”

Besides, Day notes Cunningham, a 26-year department veteran, has long been its lead firearm instructor.

“This guy is trained,” he said.

Day said the city will forward the lawsuit, when it receives it, to the Washington Cities Insurance Authority to determine a course of action.

Pickett believes the suit will end up before a jury.

“It’ll head for trial,” he said. “I represent a lot of people and they typically want to shine a light on misconduct whenever the government has done something wrong.”

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