Inquests have long been convened to determine the factual circumstances surrounding the use of deadly force by King County law-enforcement officers. But the process has increasingly come under fire by critics who say the scope is too limited and tilted toward the police.
King County Executive Dow Constantine announced Tuesday the formation of a six-member committee to examine how the county conducts inquests into shooting deaths and other fatalities at the hands of police.
For decades, inquests have been seen as a welcome opportunity to determine the factual circumstances surrounding the use of deadly force by law-enforcement officers in the county.
While inquest juries, normally made up of six people, do not decide civil or criminal liability, they have almost always reached conclusions seen as supportive of the police — generating increasing criticism from those who say the scope is too limited and tilted toward law-enforcement officers.
Constantine, who convenes inquests, said that he wants the committee to determine whether any changes should be made in a “just the facts” process that many people find unsatisfying because it doesn’t address the “why” behind what happened.
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“From a public-policy perspective, you want to do more than figure out the what, where and when,” Constantine said. “You want to know what you can do to prevent it from happening in the future.”
The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which represents more than 1,300 officers and sergeants, tweeted a response Tuesday, saying, “SPOG does not believe that the current inquest process should be changed. If a discussion is held then have ALL parties involved weigh in.”
Constantine’s action comes in a year when he has ordered 13 inquests so far, including in the controversial shootings of Charleena Lyles by Seattle police and of Tommy 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.
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.
Inquests are planned in both cases in the coming months.
Constantine said a major question that has been raised is whether the families of those killed by police should be provided legal representation during inquests at public expense. Law-enforcement officers are provided lawyers, but families must hire attorneys or go without representation.
Also at issue is whether family attorneys should be given a larger role in presenting information to juries.
Another question is whether it’s proper for inquests to be run by the King County Prosecutor’s Office, which must decide later whether to bring criminal charges against officers and which defends the county against any lawsuits arising from the deaths.
But if prosecutors didn’t handle the job, who would?
Among those who will serve on the committee is Rick Williams, whose brother, John T. Williams, a First Nations woodcarver, was fatally shot by a Seattle police officer in 2010. The officer resigned after the Police Department found the shooting to be unjustified and the incident contributed to federally mandated reforms requiring the department to address excessive force and biased policing.
Williams provides an important “voice” for families, Constantine said.
Other members include Jeffrey Beaver, a Seattle attorney and member of the state Supreme Court’s Minority and Justice Commission; Fabienne “Fae” Brooks, a retired King County sheriff’s deputy who served for 26 years and is nationwide consultant on police and community relations; Sandra “Sam” Pailca, a Microsoft attorney who previously served as the civilian director of the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Police Accountability; and King County Superior Court Judge Dean Lum.
The five members, who will select a sixth member and hold public forums, are to produce a report by March.
Under Constantine’s plan, the panel’s topics may include whether fact finding, traditional rules of evidence and the scope and standards of proof employed during inquests are useful.
The committee also might examine whether it is necessary to have the county’s District Court judges involved in the process, as well as juries who might not reflect the demographic makeup of the community.
It also could study alternative or parallel processes that might aid community and family healing and create for law enforcement an avenue that engenders public trust.
“I do not know what our committee is going to recommend to me, but I’m hopeful that from among these issues that have been raised by the community and among others that these committee members will have, I’ll be able to … sign an order that provides for more effective and satisfying process for everyone involved,” Constantine said.
Although there is no precise historical record of all King County inquests, it appears that only one police officer, in a 1971 incident, was criminally charged after an inquest.
The inquest jury decided in a 5-to-1 vote that the Seattle police officer’s fatal shooting of a man was not necessary to make an arrest. A jury found the officer not guilty of manslaughter.
Constantine said one of the balancing acts will be to protect the rights of law-enforcement officers, recognizing there must be a “fair and objective forum” in which they are willing to participate in the face of potential criminal liability.
While some might want a process more like a trial, he said, one of the questions the committee will have to weigh is whether criminal and civil issues are better left to other forums.
“In the case of an officer of the state being involved in the death of a resident, we need an open and transparent public process,” Constantine said of his overall goal. “That is critical to people’s confidence in their government.”