Amid an official push to reform King County's fact-finding hearings that occur after fatal police encounters, known as inquests, a coalition of community groups has published a list of recommendations to make inquests more accountable to the families involved and to the public.
The 22 organizations and people behind the recommendations—including Asian-American community services, immigrant rights groups, public defender associations, and the Seattle Community Police Commission—say that jurors should be able to address more meaningful questions during the inquest process, and that the process itself should be made more accessible through live-streaming.
Inquests are currently overseen by King County District Court judges and seek to establish the facts of what happened, but not criminal or civil liability. After testimony from the officers involved, witnesses, and medical examiners, jurors are asked not to determine fault, but to answer a series of "yes/no" questions called interrogatories.
In recent years, families of people killed by police have criticized the inquest process for its narrow scope, the limited questions they're allowed to ask about what happened, and a lack of legal representation. (Notably, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, representing the Muckleshoot Tribe in last year's inquest of the fatal shooting of Renee Davis, also criticized the inquest process.) While family members may have questions about officers' training, for example, King County judges and prosecutors typically exclude examination of training from the inquests' purview.
In January, King County Executive Dow Constantine paused all pending inquests while the county considers changes to the inquest hearings. Constantine then convened a task force to study whether inquests, as they're currently structured, make any sense. A final report from the task force is due this month.
Earlier this year, the King County Council already voted to make one change immediate: ensuring that families of people killed by police have legal representation during the hearings. But the recommendations released on Monday also urged the county to treat the families with more compassion. By way of example, the groups cited judges who "pre-emptively admonished families and others who felt close to the person killed not to disrupt the proceedings – despite the absence of any evidence that disruption was planned." (This is something that I saw from King County Judge Susan Mahoney during the Renee Davis inquest, too.) The recommendations also noted that inquest hearing rooms are typically tiny, and while police officers involved in the shooting are given comfort or break rooms, families are not given the same courtesy.
The recommendations also suggested that inquests could satisfy a tenet of I-940, should the deadly force initiative become law during the legislative session or get pass by voters in November. I-940 would change the state's restrictive deadly force statute to make it easier to hold cops accountable for bad shootings, as well as mandate additional de-escalation and mental health training statewide. I-940 would also require that an external agency conduct an investigation into police shootings to determine whether the shooting was made "in good faith." This "good faith" question—with standards set up by the I-940 law change—could overlap with the inquest process, the community groups argue.
Read the full list of recommendations here.