A pregnant woman shot seven times in her living room in front of her two children. A 20-year-old holding only an ink pen shot twice in the back outside his family's home. An unarmed 66-year-old man with dementia who died after his neck was broken in his own home.
What do all of these killings have in common? Each is the story of a cop in King County (whether from the Seattle Police Department, Bellevue Police Department, King County Sheriff's Office, etc.) being directly involved in someone's death over the last two years. These incidents would normally have already been investigated at inquest hearings, the public fact-finding tribunals held after a cop kills someone. But the county stopped holding these hearings more than a year ago to update the rules.
Now the hearings are returning. There's plenty to investigate. Law enforcement has shot or otherwise been involved in the deaths of at least 16 people in King County in the last two years.
The list of killings that need inquest hearings (at least five involving Seattle police officers) includes cases that have gained national attention and scrutiny: the deaths of Damarius Butts, Isaiah Obet, Tommy Le, Charleena Lyles, Eugene Nelson, Robert J. Lightfeather, Curtis Elroy Tade, Jason Seavers, Karla Gamez-Talavera, Mitchell O. Nelson, Marcelo A. Castellano, Joseph Peppan, Iosia Faletogo, Miguel A. Barraza-Lugo, Wangsheng Leng, and a man killed in Northgate in February who has not yet been identified.
Inquest hearings are separate from internal police investigations or criminal and civil lawsuits. The hearings don't have the power to get a cop fired, earn monetary settlements, or put a cop behind bars. But they do offer the chance to identify and amplify bad police practices and change them. King County Executive Dow Constantine put the hearings on hiatus in January of 2018 after the police-reform community said the process was slanted in favor of cops.
Now the county has updated the inquest policy in several key ways: (1) Hearings will be recorded and shared online, (2) families of the deceased are provided legal counsel, (3) the cops involved no longer need to be present during the hearings, but the chief of police or head of their law-enforcement agency is required to be present, (4) attorneys for the family can now make opening and closing statements and call their own expert witnesses, and (5) the scope of the hearings will expand to ask not only the facts of the case but also whether changing law-enforcement policies could have prevented the death.
The local police-reform community has said these are meaningful updates. Corey Guilmette, an attorney who currently represents families with pending inquest hearings, said expanding the scope of the hearings to include policing policies is the most effective way to prevent future killings. "If, despite following policy and training, a preventable death still happened, that's important to know so policy makers can revisit how officers are trained and what policies are, so they can get it right in the future," he said.
Guilmette added that the longer the county waits to hold the inquest hearings, the harder it is for investigations to be thorough and useful—there's a reason a murder investigation starts the minute the death is discovered. But the county has yet to announce a schedule for the hearings, despite more than a year passing since they were put on hold and more than six months since Constantine announced the new rules.
The county is currently hiring a legal staff to administer the new hearings. Hopefully that means these tribunals will resume soon. If history is any guide, cops won't stop killing people in King County anytime soon.