The first inquest under King County’s newly revamped process to examine deaths caused by law enforcement officers is in the books. The next one is scheduled for August.

Six inquests are currently pending, all for incidents that happened five years ago. That may seem like a long wait for resolution. But it should also be acknowledged that the resumption of the inquest program is a positive development to create accountability and transparency when law enforcement takes lethal actions.

The fight for a meaningful inquest system was litigious and time-consuming. In the end, it will prove to be worth the struggle.

On March 28, eight jurors answered 84 questions about the officer-involved 2017 shooting of Damarius Butts, 19, near Pioneer Square.

The jurors unanimously determined that the four responding officers complied with the Seattle Police Department’s de-escalation, use of force and firearms policies, among others. They also found that the officers were justified in using deadly force.

King County is unique in Washington in that its charter requires an inquest jury be convened for every death caused by law enforcement. Most other Washington counties rely on death investigations conducted by a coroner or a medical examiner.

Advertising

In 2018, King County Executive Dow Constantine paused inquests and reformed the process amid criticism that it had become tilted too heavily in favor of law enforcement.

He announced new inquest procedures and rules in 2019, but no one was happy. Families of those killed by police sued. So did law enforcement agencies from Renton, Auburn, Kent, Federal Way and the King County Sheriff’s Office, arguing that the changes left them legally vulnerable.

A King County Superior Court judge found Constantine overstepped his authority, and struck down most of the revisions. Last year, the Washington Supreme Court reversed the lower court, providing greater opportunity for the community to seek answers and establish accountability.

In a 49-page ruling, State Supreme Court Justice Debra Stephens wrote “ … inquests can offer some measure of the accountability necessary to rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve — but that accountability depends on how coroner’s inquests are conducted.”

Under the new system, inquests tell the community what happened in deadly police actions, and how they might be avoided through training and policy improvements.

There are many more cases to be heard, and more bumps along the road. But for now, Constantine and other advocates of the new system deserve credit for sticking with a difficult and controversial policy, and making it work.