Voters are being asked in this election to amend the King County charter to formalize changes and clarify language in the county’s troubled inquest procedures, but pass or fail, the changes will do little to untangle legal challenges that have hindered the process intended to review police-involved deaths, according to officials.
Charter Amendment No. 1 — on ballots being mailed to voters next week — seeks to add language to the county’s charter that guarantees legal representation at inquests to the families of individuals killed by police, and clarify that an inquest is required when an “action, decision, or possible failure to offer appropriate care by a member of a law enforcement agency might have contributed to a person’s death.” The amendment defines “member of a law enforcement agency” as a commissioned officer, noncommissioned staff and agent of any local or state police force, jail, detention facility, or corrections agency.
Given that the Metropolitan King County Council already has passed an ordinance providing counsel to the families, that portion of the charter merely “articulates in the charter that information that is already understood,” said Tom Koney, deputy director of the county’s Department of Executive Services, which oversees inquests.
The additional language, however, goes to the heart of lawsuits filed by some county municipalities and the King County Sheriff’s Office, challenging significant changes made to the inquest process in 2018 by County Executive Dow Constantine. Those cities — Kent, Auburn, Renton and Federal Way — question whether Constantine has the authority to order inquests into deaths involving their police agencies, and they have challenged the constitutionality of the executive’s revisions and whether he has the authority to make them.
As a result, the inquest process has been on hold almost since Constantine announced his plan to expand its scope.
Last month, King County Superior Court Judge Julie Spector sided with the cities, throwing further uncertainty into a reform process that virtually everyone involved agrees has so far failed to meet its intentions and failed the public and families of more than 30 people who died at the hands of police.
There are now six inquests in the pipeline — all involving deaths that occurred in 2017. Another 20 cases, dating from 2017 to 2019, have been referred to the executive for inquest by King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, and at least eight others since then are likely eligible, said Dee Sylve, the inquest program manager.
The county has appealed Spector’s ruling to the Washington Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear the case but denied a request for an expedited schedule. Chief Justice Debra Stephens instructed the clerk to set a briefing schedule to accommodate a hearing the week of Jan. 18, 2021.
“There’s no question it has been, and is, a completely unsatisfying process, no matter what expectation you set,” said Sam Pailca, who co-chaired the county’s Inquest Process Review Committee, which recommended many of the changes Constantine has attempted to implement.
“It has always fallen short,” said Pailca, an assistant general counsel at Microsoft who served as the first civilian director of the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Police Accountability.
Inquests are supposed to be fact-finding inquiries into the cause, manner and circumstances of a police-involved death. Over the years, they have taken on the trappings of a trial, presided over by a district court judge and presented by a county prosecutor to a jury of four or six people, who at the end answer a series of yes-or-no questions determining the facts of the case but do not determine criminal or civil liability. Under the old rules, families were allowed to participate only if they could afford an attorney to represent them.
Families have complained that the procedures failed to take into account circumstances around use of deadly force and appeared to be a vehicle to exonerate police. Constantine, after the commission’s report, arrived at a similar conclusion and reinstated a vastly changed inquest system in May 2019. Court challenges stopped it before the inquest process could proceed into any police death, including the June 18, 2017 shooting death of pregnant mother of four Charleena Lyles by Seattle police.
Corey Guilmette, a lawyer with the Public Defender Association who is representing the family of Charleena Lyles, said he supports the charter amendments. The Lyles inquest was first in line, and Guilmette said he and the family were disappointed in Spector’s ruling. “There is no benefit in waiting any longer,” he said. “There are families waiting who have the right to an inquest.”
King County is alone among the state’s 39 counties in requiring the prosecutor to forward police-caused deaths to the executive for inquest before a final determination of whether criminal charges might be warranted. King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said it’s created a logjam that is becoming untenable.
His office recently filed criminal homicide charges against Auburn Police officer Jeffrey Nelson for a 2019 shooting without the benefit of an inquest, and Satterberg said he can do that in cases where the evidence is clear and the charges are warranted. He said senior prosecutors review every investigation into officer-involved deaths. But Satterberg said he can’t and won’t make a final decision on criminal charges against an officer in most cases without the benefit of an open inquest, where new facts might be revealed “as unlikely as that may be.”
“When the facts on their face warrant it we can pull a case back [from inquest], retain experts and move forward” with criminal charges against an officer, Satterberg said. That’s what happened with the Auburn officer, he said.
Nelson is also the first officer charged under the new no-malice legal charging standards brought about by passage of Initiative 940.
Satterberg said the efforts to reform the inquest process have “made it more difficult” to hold timely inquests. He and others have pointed out that none of the cases will benefit from the passage of time, as memories fade, witnesses disappear and families become discouraged and bitter.
The delays have also raised eyebrows among police accountability experts. In a blistering systemic review issued last month into the King County sheriff’s investigation of the 2017 deputy-involved shooting of 20-year-old Tommy Le, former federal prosecutor Michael Gennaco — hired by the county’s independent Office of Law Enforcement Oversight — expressed incredulity that three years after the student’s death there had been no inquest “nor was there a formal opinion by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office regarding the justification of the shooting.”
Gennaco, a director at the OIR Group and the former chief attorney of the Office of Independent Review for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, added, “In our 20 years of experience reviewing officer-involved shootings, this is the first occasion we have encountered in which there has been no formal review of the deadly force’s legality,”
“The line is unacceptably long,” Satterberg said. “It wasn’t so awkward when inquests were more timely. I didn’t think the inquest process was broken and I don’t think it needed to be fixed.”
Ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 3 or placed in a county elections office dropbox before 8 p.m. that day.