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Man, 69, found shot dead after armed police respond to migrant jail attack

World News | Published:

Tacoma Police Department said four officers responded to the privately-run Northwest Detention Centre in Washington state at about 4am.

Immigration Detention Center-Shooting

A 69-year-old man armed with a rifle threw incendiary devices at an immigration jail in the US early on Saturday, and was then found dead after police arrived and opened fire, authorities said.

Tacoma Police Department said the four officers responded to the privately-run Northwest Detention Centre in Washington state at about 4am.

The US Department of Homeland Security detention facility holds migrants pending deportation proceedings. It has also held immigration-seeking parents separated from their children under President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy which is aimed at deterring illegal immigration.

The shooting took place about six hours after a peaceful rally in front of the detention centre, police spokesman Loretta Cool said.

On Saturday night, the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office identified the man as Willem Van Spronsen, of Vashon Island, the Tacoma News-Tribune and the Seattle Times reported.

Police said Van Spronsen caused a vehicle to catch fire and that he attempted to ignite a large propane tank and set buildings on fire. They said that as well as the rifle, he had a satchel and flares.

They said the attending officers called out to Van Spronsen, and shots were fired.

Ms Cool said all four officers fired their weapons, but she did not have specific details of what took place.

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She said the officers were not wearing body cameras, but the area is covered by surveillance cameras from the detention centre.

She said she did not know if the man fired at the officers.

After the gunfire, officers took cover, contained the area and set up medical aid a short distance away, police said.

Officers then located Van Spronsen and determined that he had been shot and was dead at the scene.

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Tacoma Detention Center(2)
A police officer turns away would-be protesters in front of a road block near the Northwest Detention Centre in Tacoma, Washington state (Rebekah Welch/The Seattle Times/AP)

Authorities said investigators are processing the scene and police are continuing to investigate.

No law enforcement officers were injured.

The four Tacoma police officers who fired their weapons have been placed on paid administrative leave as is standard in officer-involved shootings.

Deb Bartley, a friend of Van Spronsen for about 20 years, told the Seattle Times he was an anarchist and anti-fascist, and believes his attack on the detention centre was intended to provoke a fatal conflict.

“He was ready to end it,” she said. “I think this was a suicide. But then he was able to kind of do it in a way that spoke to his political beliefs. I know he went down there knowing he was going to die.”

She said she and other friends had received letters from Van Spronsen “just saying goodbye”. He also wrote what she referred to as a manifesto, which she declined to discuss in detail, the Times reported.

Van Spronsen was accused of assaulting a police officer during a protest outside the detention centre in 2018, The News-Tribune reported.

According to court documents, he lunged at the officer and wrapped his arms around the officer’s neck and shoulders, as the officer was trying to detain a 17-year-old protester on June 26 2018, the newspaper reported.

According to court documents, police handcuffed Van Spronsen and found that he had a collapsible baton and a folding knife in his pocket.

Van Spronsen pleaded guilty to the charge of obstructing police, and was given a deferred sentence in October, the News-Tribune reported.

GEO Group, which runs the 1,575-bed Northwest Detention Centre, said in an email to The Associated Press that baseless accusations about how detainees are treated at its facilities “have led to misplaced aggression and a dangerous environment for our employees, whose safety is our top priority”.

“Violence of any kind against our employees and property will not be tolerated. We are thankful for the quick and brave action by the Tacoma Police Department, which prevented innocent lives from being endangered.”

GEO Group said the detention centre in Tacoma has modern amenities with air conditioning, recreational activities, a bed for every individual and medical care available at all hours.

Last year, a federal judge ruled that Washington state could pursue its lawsuit seeking to force GEO Group to pay minimum wage for work done by detainees at the detention centre.

In November, a Russian asylum-seeker who staged a hunger strike in protest at the conditions at the detention centre died by suicide, the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled.

Mergensana Amar, 40, was taken off life support after attempting to kill himself while in voluntary protective custody at the detention centre on November 15, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement said.

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