A King County Superior Court judge on Friday sided with four South King County cities in their lawsuit against County Executive Dow Constantine, which alleges he overstepped his authority when he changed the county’s deadly-force inquest process that investigates officer-involved deaths.
“It’s a significant ruling because the county executive overstepped his authority in attempting to change the inquest process and rules … One county in Washington state deciding to play by their own rules — that just isn’t legal,” said Bailey Stober, a spokesperson for Kent Mayor Dana Ralph, one of four South King County city mayors involved in the lawsuit.
In January, the cities of Kent, Auburn, Renton and Federal Way, along with the King County Sheriff’s Office, joined the city of Seattle in its lawsuit against Constantine to ask a court to determine whether or not he had overreached when he created new rules for the county medical examiner’s inquest process.
“We are reviewing the order and will prepare next steps,” Alex Fryer, a spokesperson for Constantine’s office, said in a statement after the ruling. “It is clear that community members, families, and law enforcement agencies need answers about officer-involved deaths, and all possible information that could prevent such tragedies in the future.”
Superior Court Judge Julie Spector, who ruled on the lawsuit, has also asked the Washington State Supreme Court to review the case, according to a Friday statement on behalf of the four cities.
Constantine reinstated the process in May 2019 after a nearly two-year overhaul in hopes of providing a “more fair and transparent” system for reviewing officer-involved deaths.
But the cities argue that the new rules are unfair to officers, because, among other things, they include restrictions that bar officers from testifying about their state of mind when they use deadly force, Stober said.
The ruling comes during a time when communities are fiercely pushing for more police accountability and transparency. In the Seattle area, demonstrators have continued to protest the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer this year, nearly every day since late May.
And on Thursday, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg charged Auburn police Officer Jeffrey Nelson with second-degree murder and first-degree assault in a May 2019 fatal shooting, marking only the third time a police officer in Washington has been charged with killing someone in the line of duty.
Those who supported the recent changes to the inquest process say they’re deeply concerned with the Friday ruling. The decision effectively pauses the process for several other inquests still pending, including one for Charleena Lyles, who was fatally shot in 2017 by Seattle police officers after she had called them to her apartment to report an attempted burglary.
“We were disappointed in the ruling,” said Corey Guilmette, an attorney representing Lyles’s family. “I think what you’re really seeing here is the dying gasps of an effort to obstruct accountability and obstruct the real investigation of what happened in the deaths of people like Charleena Lyles and Isaiah Obet,” who was fatally shot by Nelson.
The Friday statement from the four cities noted that pausing the inquest process in “no way stops the criminal prosecution of a police officer who is found to have violated the law.”
“This is a case of tremendous public importance, especially in the light of (the charges against Nelson),” Guilmette said. While the charges are “a step in the right direction, much more needs to be done and it needs to be done in public view. And that’s what the inquest process provides.”
Seattle Times reporter Mike Carter contributed to this story.