Inquests into fatal shootings by police can resume for the first time in three years in King County, and now will include far-reaching changes that had been opposed by county law enforcement agencies.
Executive Dow Constantine signed an order Wednesday allowing for the inquests, which are required for any death involving law enforcement. At a small ceremony Wednesday, flanked by members and supporters of the police-reform group Not This Time, he announced that the newly expanded inquests will resume immediately.
The new process, Constantine said, is intended to provided “clarity for the families, confidence to the public about how the power of the state is being wielded, and clarity and closure for law enforcement.”
He presented the pen used to sign the order to Devitta Briscoe, the sister of police shooting victim Che Taylor, who was a member of the committee that recommended the inquest revisions in 2018.
“The families who have lost their loved ones at the hands of the state deserve to know the facts and the circumstances that led to that tragedy,” Briscoe said.
The new inquest procedures come nearly three years after Constantine signed a series of similar executive orders — at the recommendation of a task force — changing the process with the goal of making it fairer to the families of people killed by police or who die in custody. The changes moved the inquest process out of the courts and prosecutor’s office and provided families with county-funded attorneys — a move later endorsed and funded by the Metropolitan King County Council. It also allowed for expanded inquiries into a department’s policies that may have contributed to the death.
Five of the county’s largest law enforcement agencies — the King County Sheriff’s Office and police departments from Auburn, Kent, Renton and Federal Way — challenged Constantine’s order, alleging he overstepped his authority. That prompted a three-year legal fight that ended earlier this month with a landmark unanimous Washington Supreme Court ruling. Initially, the Seattle Police Department sued as well, but it dismissed its claim at the urging of city officials.
The Supreme Court’s ruling not only upheld Constantine’s revisions but also adopted recommendations by some families that significantly expand the process and require that law enforcement must participate.
“We faced challenges from those who wanted to stand in the way and block our vision to shine the light and find answers for these families, for agencies, for the public who deserves the unvarnished truth,” Constantine said Wednesday.
The Supreme Court adopted the changes Constantine attempted to implement earlier but expanded the process in significant ways: The process will now allow a coroner’s jury to inquire into whether an officer’s actions comported with department policy and allow families to compel testimony from the officers involved.
Moreover, the justices adopted arguments by families of several individuals whose inquests are pending, including Charleena Lyles and Damarius Butts, both killed by Seattle police in 2017, and determined that juries can be asked whether the death resulted from “criminal means.”
That language has been part of the inquest act since it was adopted when Washington was still a territory in 1854, but hasn’t been asked of an inquest jury in King County for at least 40 years — a fact that helped convince Constantine that the process was unfair to families and appeared biased in favor of law enforcement.
When Constantine halted inquests in 2018 after determining the process was biased and broken, there were six inquests pending, all from shootings the previous year: Butts, killed by Seattle police following a downtown robbery and shootout in April of that year; Isaiah Obet, shot by Auburn police in June 2017; Lyles, killed by SPD officers in June; Eugene Nelson, killed by Kent police; Robert Lightfeather, killed by Federal Way officers in October; and Curtis Tade, shot by Kirkland police in December.
The three “administrators” who will oversee the inquests — taking the place of district court judges — will begin moving those cases toward inquests immediately, said Dee Sylve, the county’s inquest program manager.
Constantine said Wednesday he is prepared to refer 16 additional police-related deaths to the program. His office has said at least 36 law enforcement-related deaths since 2017 are eligible for inquests.