King County Executive Dow Constantine announced today that his office will launch a task force to review fact-finding hearings, or inquests, held after police shootings.
Unlike many other local governments, King County's charter calls for county courts to hold inquests after deaths involving law enforcement. But the hearings are rarely satisfying for family and community members who have questions outside the narrow scope of questions allowed by inquest judges. Inquests don't determine fault like a criminal proceeding would, but prosecutors can use inquest findings in their decisions whether or not to charge a police officer. (State law still makes it effectively impossible to criminally charge police for lethal force, but there's a ballot effort underway to change that.)
If family members are looking for answers as to why officers got themselves into a situation where they felt they had to use lethal force at all, an inquest typically won't provide answers. Neither will an inquest address concerns about systemic issues like training.
Constantine's decision arrives on the eve of two inquests over shootings that stirred a significant public response: Judges will oversee inquests over the fatal shootings of Charleena Lyles and Tommy Le.
Deborah Jacobs, director of King County's Office for Law Enforcement Oversight, praised Constantine's decision to review the inquest process.
“Executive Constantine has taken a critical first step toward addressing the dissatisfaction and frustration with the inquest process vocalized by people throughout the county,” Jacobs said in an e-mailed statement. “The public yearns for a robust and more just system that serves the needs of all parties searching for answers amidst tragedy.”
Mayor Jenny Durkan has also said she believes the inquest process needs to be reformed. Before she began her campaign for mayor in earnest, one of Durkan's last assignments as an attorney was to represent the Muckleshoot Tribe in the fatal police shooting of pregnant Renee Davis, who was killed during a welfare check. The inquest, which took place in May of this year, convened a six-person jury that concluded officers feared for their lives when they shot Davis.
"I think there needs to be some public forum where, separate from questions of fault or blame, we talk about a better approach to be made, or better training is needed," Durkan told The Stranger after the inquest concluded. "The public has a right to be thinking about and inquiring about and learning from tragedies so we don't repeat them."
Constantine appointed five people to King County's new inquest task force, and the five appointees will then choose a sixth. So far the appointees are:
• Jeffrey Beaver, a member of the Washington State Supreme Court’s Minority & Justice Commission.
• Fabienne “Fae” Brooks, former chief of detectives at the King County Sheriff’s Office and a trainer at the National Coalition Building Institute, a nonprofit devoted to training leaders to foster diverse workplaces.
• Sandra “Sam” Pailca, former City of Seattle’s Office of Professional Accountability director, and now assistant general counsel at Microsoft.
• Rick Williams, brother of slain Native American woodcarver John T. Williams.
• Judge Dean S. Lum, King County Superior Court judge.
According to Constantine's announcement, some of the areas the task force may explore include whether the county should provide publicly-funded legal representation for the shooting victim's family members, whether the form of inquest "interrogatories" (questions asked of the jurors) serves any useful purpose, and whether there are alternatives to inquests or other forums that could "better serve the community’s and the family’s need for healing, and create for law enforcement a process of reflection that engenders public trust."
The task force's first report is scheduled for March of 2018.