Executive Dow Constantine’s order puts on hold five pending inquests now underway, including those for Charleena Lyles and Tommy Le. The inquest process has drawn increasing criticism in recent years from those who say the method is biased toward law-enforcement officers.
All inquests of fatal police shootings now underway in King County will be temporarily halted — and no new inquests will be ordered — until a committee now reviewing the formal fact-finding process for law-enforcement-related deaths submits its recommendations for potential reforms, Executive Dow Constantine announced Monday.
“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.
Monday’s action puts on hold five pending inquests now underway for the recent police shooting deaths of Isaiah Obet, Damarius Butts, Eugene D. Nelson, Tommy Le and Charleena Lyles.
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.
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The inquest process typically involves juries of six people who are tasked not with finding criminal or civil liability, but are asked to answer a series of questions to determine the circumstances about a fatality.
Inquests have been used for decades in King County and elsewhere in Washington, but the process has drawn increasing criticism in recent years from those who say the method is biased toward law-enforcement officers.
Although there is no precise historical record of all King County inquests, it appears only one police officer was criminally charged following 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 reforms.
The announcement came at the end of a year when Constantine ordered 13 inquests, including those for the controversial shootings of Lyles by Seattle police officers and of Le by a King County sheriff’s deputy.
Lyles, a 30-year-old African-American mother of four, was shot by two officers June 18 after she called 911 to report a burglary at her Northeast Seattle apartment. Police said Lyles suddenly threatened two white officers with one or two knives before they opened fire.
Her death sparked protests, including allegations the shooting was racially motivated.
Le, 20, was fatally shot by a deputy in Burien on June 13 after deputies received a call about a man armed with a knife. Le was holding a pen when he was killed.
Attorneys representing the families of Lyles and Le separately applauded the decision Monday, saying reforms are long overdue.
Jeff Campiche, the Seattle lawyer representing Le’s family, noted the current process limits families of the dead from presenting evidence and addressing the jury during inquests.
“The current Inquest process in King County assures that the law enforcement agency that employs the officer responsible for the homicide controls the evidence in the inquest,” Campiche said. “The process must allow for an independent investigation of police shootings.”
Corey Guilmette, whose nonprofit Public Defender Association represents five members of Lyles’ family pro bono, added “three out of four families don’t have counsel representing them during inquests.”
“They’re never assigned counsel,” he said. “So there is a void, and it needs to be addressed.”
A proposal from King County councilmembers Rod Dembowski, Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Dave Upthegrove aims to change that by authorizing the county’s public-defender department to provide legal representation during inquests to families of the dead. The measure will be introduced to the council’s Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday.
Constantine’s inquest-review committee includes Seattle attorney Jeffrey Beaver; retired King County sheriff’s Deputy Fabienne Brooks; Sam Pailca, the former civilian oversight director of the Seattle Police Department; Rick Williams, brother of John T. Williams, who was shot dead by a Seattle police officer; and King County Superior Court Judge Dean S. Lum. These five will choose the committee’s sixth member.
After the committee’s formation, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which represents 1,300 police officers and sergeants, publicly defended the current process.
“SPOG does not believe that the current inquest process should be changed,” the guild’s official Twitter account tweeted last month. “If a discussion is held then have ALL parties involved weigh in.”
Constantine’s announcement came just hours after a Pierce County sheriff’s deputy was fatally shot after responding to a 911 call. In addition, Tacoma police fatally shot a man they say ignored repeated orders to put down a gunSunday night.
Last week, King County District Court Presiding Judge Donna Tucker notified Constantine’s office that she has decided to decline future inquest requests until the committee issues its recommendations.
Constantine said Tucker’s decision gives the committee “even more urgency, and greater latitude to suggest something new.”
The review committee is expected to issue its recommendations in March.