Legislation passed by the Metropolitan King County Council on Monday calls for the county’s Department of Public Defense to provide attorneys to families participating in inquests no matter their financial status.
To cheers in the audience, the Metropolitan King County Council unanimously adopted legislation Monday to provide publicly funded legal representation during inquest proceedings to families of those killed as the result of police use of deadly force.
The council’s action comes at a time when a special committee appointed by King County Executive Dow Constantine has been asked to consider whether broader changes are needed in the county’s inquest system. The committee’s report is due in March.
The ordinance, which passed 9 to 0, calls for the county’s Department of Public Defense to provide attorneys to families participating in inquests no matter their financial status. Families could opt not to be represented.
The county won’t pay for outside attorneys, which are now retained by some families during inquests and could be used in the future if they choose that option.
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The Department of Public Defense has informed the county it can do the work with its existing staff.
A county judge now presides over inquests. Prosecutors present information to a jury, typically six people, who answer a series of questions. Law-enforcement officers are routinely provided legal counsel.
Although the proceeding has the trappings of a trial, jurors are not tasked with finding criminal or civil liability.
Of 34 inquests between 2012 and 2016, 12 families retained private counsel or attorneys who worked without charge, according to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office
“This, to me, represents a leveling of the playing field,” County Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, the lead sponsor of the legislation, said during Monday’s meeting.
A parade of speakers, including community leaders and relatives of those killed by police, spoke passionately about the critical need for grieving families to be provided legal assistance to deal with a confusing process — testimony that Councilmember Larry Gossett described as “unusually compelling.”
Fé Lopez, executive director of Seattle’s Community Police Commission, called lack of representation an “unjust and inhumane burden” on families.
Under state law, elected coroners or appointed medical examiners in any county are allowed to call an inquest to investigate circumstances and causes of any death involving law enforcement. King County’s charter requires an inquest, granting the county executive authority over the fact-finding process.
Inquests have been used for decades in King County and sometimes elsewhere in Washington, but the process has drawn increasing criticism in recent years from those who say it is biased toward law-enforcement officers. Legal representation for families has emerged as a key issue.
While there is no precise historical record of all King County inquests, it appears only one police officer was criminally charged after the process, in 1971.
In December, Constantine announced the formation of a six-member review committee to examine the inquest process and issue recommendations for potential changes that could alter the form and substance of inquests. The committee has since grown to seven members.
This month, all pending inquests were temporarily halted — and no new inquests will be ordered — until the committee submits its recommendations for potential reforms. Constantine’s action put on hold several pending inquests.
“In the interest of fairness to all those involved, we will pause all inquests as the Review Committee and community partners seek to better understand what works and what doesn’t, and recommend reforms,” Constantine said in a statement announcing the halt.
Kohl-Welles described legal representation for families as a logical move. “It’s the decent thing to do,” she said.
She said she decided to introduce the legislation before Constantine set up the committee.
In an interview, she said she considered the ordinance “very timely” in light of a number of high-profile cases.
She said she saw no point in delaying the vote until the committee finishes it works, noting that Constantine and King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg support the ordinance.
Legal representation can be plugged into whatever inquest process emerges, Kohl-Welles said.