Rather than focus on whether officers feared for their lives, inquests will focus on whether they followed policies and training.
Future inquests into the use of deadly force by law-enforcement officers in King County will focus on whether police followed policies and training and less on an officer’s individual perceptions under a major overhaul of the proceeding to be announced Wednesday by King County Executive Dow Constantine.
“That information should help us be able to determine whether … police agency policies need to be modified and whether the training needs to be different and whether there needs to more of it,” Constantine said in an interview in which he stressed that the goal is to prevent deaths, bring more credibility to the process and broaden hearing procedures that in the past families of those killed by police have often found frustrating and unsatisfactory.
In the interview Tuesday, Constantine said he will sign an executive order Wednesday that removes many of the trappings of a trial that have led inquest juries to repeatedly reach findings, based on testimony of officers that they feared for their lives, that left the impression a shooting or other use of deadly force was justified, which was never the intent of inquest proceedings.
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Under the order, inquests will still be held in King County courtrooms. But instead of a sitting judge presiding, the hearings will be overseen by temporarily appointed administrators, selected from a pool of former judges. Rules of evidence will still apply, Constantine said.
And rather than a King County prosecutor presenting the evidence, the case will now be presented to the inquest panel — no longer called a jury — by a qualified specially selected outside attorney. The extent of those qualifications have yet to be determined, he said.
In a significant change, attorneys representing the families of those who were killed will be given the opportunity to call their own witnesses rather than rely on only those officially selected to testify. The family’s lawyer will also be allowed — along with other parties — to give a summary statement at the end of the proceedings before the inquest panel issues its factual findings on the circumstances of the death.
Also moving away from trial-like proceedings, Constantine said he rejected a suggestion that opening statements be allowed because they could cloud the proceeding before testimony is heard.
Additionally, officers no longer will be subpoenaed to testify, although they will be allowed to decide whether to take the stand and testify. Any statements they give as part of their department’s independent use-of-force investigation will be provided to the inquest panel.
Police chiefs and sheriffs or their designees will be required under the new procedures to testify on the policies and training used by their agencies and investigators from those agencies will provide details about the incident.
The standard of proof will be a preponderance of the evidence and a panel of four to six members will answer a series of questions, much like inquest juries have done in the past. But while past inquiries have focused on whether the officer reasonably feared for his life when he used deadly force, the new proceedings will seek to reach a broader conclusion: did the use of deadly force fall within the department’s policies and the officer’s training?
That examination was a top priority of community groups who participated in the review of the inquest proceedings.
Panelists won’t be asked to make recommendations or issue findings of criminal or civil liability, which is no different from how inquests have always operated. However, the old procedure often led to confusion and the mistaken belief that juries had reached an official verdict.
They also won’t be allowed to comment on fault, including the state of mind of officers, although they can be given information on why officers took specific actions.
Currently, there are five inquests and four potential inquests on hold, including inquests into the controversial shootings in 2017 of Charleena Lyles by Seattle police and Tommy Le by the King County Sheriff’s Office.
Constantine’s goal is to have the new process operating by the end of March. His 2019-2020 budget includes $560,000 for inquest staff and the pools of administrators and attorneys.
His order incorporates legislation passed last year by the Metropolitan King County Council to provide publicly funded legal representation during inquest proceedings to families of those killed — something police officers have been routinely provided. Families could still choose to hire their own attorneys.
Information from inquests will still be used by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office in determining whether to bring criminal changes against officers.
Constantine said he’s mindful of Initiative 940, the Nov. 6 ballot measure in which voters will be asked whether to modify the law to make it less difficult to prosecute officers over use of force, add training and, in a potential change of most interest to the county, require independent investigations into police use of deadly force.
He said he is prepared to make adjustments if the measure is approved.
Constantine said the county will create a website with information on inquests and audio recordings of proceedings, consistent with the transparency he wants under his overall order.
He said he also favors the additional use of “restorative circles,” where the parties meet informally to work through issues.
The Seattle Police Officers Guild and King County Police Officers Guild have yet to formally offer a position on the order.
But James Schrimpsher, Lodge 27 president of the Washington Fraternal Order of Police, said in a statement, “The new executive order is another example of what can happen when law enforcement and communities work together.”