Judge Michael Spearmen in a pre-inquest hearing in September.
Judge Michael Spearman at a pre-inquest hearing in September. He'll be presiding over the inquest into the killing of Damarius Butts, which opens next week under new rules laid down by King County executive Dow Constantine. Lester Black

It was just before 1:20 p.m. on a bright spring day in March of 2017 when Damarius Butts and his sister walked out of a downtown Seattle 7-Eleven with a 12-pack of beer and some potato chips. A clerk ran after them accusing them of theft, Butts allegedly flashed a handgun that was tucked into his waistband, and within minutes, Butts was being chased on foot by officers from the Seattle Police Department (SPD).

By 1:30 p.m., Butts was in a dark corner of a downtown building engaged in a shoot-out with police. Four officers were hit by gunfire and were sent to local hospitals. Butts emerged hours later, his dead body being dragged by an SPD canine unit.

In the tradition of Homo For The Holidays: JINGLE ALL THE GAY! Dec 6-29

How exactly did Butts end up dead at the hands of four SPD officers? Did those officers follow police department policy when they killed the 19-year-old from Kent? Could SPD policy be changed to prevent future deaths like this one?

Those questions will soon be answered as the county embarks on its first inquest hearing in two years of a deadly officer-involved shooting.

The Butts inquest will be the very first of a new kind of inquest hearing, in which the actions of officers who kill people in the line of duty will be transparently examined like never before and broadcast for anyone with an internet connection to see.

Not only will officers' actions be examined in a courtroom setting, but a jury will be asked whether the officers involved in the Butts shooting complied with their training, and, perhaps more importantly, whether a change in police training is called for.

This change in the scope of inquest hearings is strong enough that it has local law enforcement worried.

Ted Buck, a longtime attorney for police officers and the attorney for the officers in the Butts case, said police officers are “absolutely” watching how this new inquest hearing plays out.

“I think a lot of them are very nervous that they are going to be subjected to second-guessing by what is a panel of amateurs who don’t know the details of training and policy,” Buck told The Stranger. “And that it just could be a situation where they get a lot of blame heaped on them even though they did all of what they were trained to do.”

The officers in the Butts case have already declined to testify, instead letting their side of the story be told by their attorneys and officials from SPD.

Just as some cops worry the new inquests are going too far, other police-reform advocates aren’t convinced that these new inquest hearings have gone far enough. Inquest hearings are not civil or criminal proceedings—there’s no chance inquest hearings will conclude with criminal charges against a killer cop. And any recommendations the inquest jury make will be entirely voluntary for police departments to comply with.

Without criminal charges on the line or the power to directly change police policy, these hearings left DeRay Mckesson, a national figure in the Black Lives Matter movement, unconvinced.

“I’m worried and skeptical that a process like this, that just puts out recommendations, will cause policy change and structural change—unless that process is improved to force the police department to adopt those policies," Mckesson said.

The Damarius Butts inquest starts this coming Monday, December 9, at 9 a.m. Anyone with an internet connection will be able to watch.

Officials announcing a new inquest hearing process at a press conference in May. From right, King County Executive Dow Constantine; Mark Larson, chief deputy of criminal prosecutions at King County Prosecutors Office; and Anita Khandelwal, director of Public Defense.
Officials announcing a new inquest hearing process at a press conference in May. From left: Anita Khandelwal, director of Public Defense; Mark Larson, chief deputy of criminal prosecutions at King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office; and King County executive Dow Constantine. Lester Black

A New Kind of Inquest

The last time an inquest received high-profile attention was in February of 2017—two months before Butts would die—when an inquest hearing was called into the death of Che Taylor. Taylor was killed when two SPD officers shot him at point-blank range with a shotgun in North Seattle in 2016.

The Taylor inquest hearing was scheduled for only three days, but it stretched for nearly two weeks of emotionally charged courtroom proceedings. People shrieked with grief when a courtroom video was shown of Taylor being killed; SPD cops filled one half of the room in support of the officers they believed were confronting a deadly situation. And the supposedly transparent proceeding was decidedly closed off. Judge Janet Garrow, who was overseeing the proceedings, didn’t even allow reporters to record audio out of an apparent fear that someone would livestream the proceedings.

In a twist of irony, that’s exactly what’s going to happen in the Butts inquest.

These new inquest hearings are being governed by an entirely new rule book enacted by King County executive Dow Constantine, who paused all inquest hearings in January of 2018 after vocal objections in the community that the inquest process was tilted to only absolve the cops of any wrongdoing.

In the old system, attorneys for the families were barred from bringing their own expert witnesses and from making opening or closing statements, and they were almost always barred from bringing up police training.

The juries were told to answer whether the cops “feared for their lives” before they killed, a question many advocates say does not adequately answer whether a cop should have killed someone.

Making matters worse, the county didn’t pay for attorneys for families of people shot by cops, and at least 22 families since 2012 have had to go through the complicated quasi-judicial inquest proceedings without any legal help.

That left an essentially predetermined outcome—the inquest could be used to absolve the cops of any wrongdoing.

Constantine released a new set of rules in October of last year, which make major changes, including:

• All families will be provided free legal counsel.

• Attorneys may request testimony from experts.

• Attorneys can make opening and closing statements.

• The responsible officer is no longer compelled to testify.

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• Inquest jurors cannot be asked if the cop feared for their life, but will instead be asked whether the officer’s actions complied with police training and policy or if new training could have prevented the death.

This inclusion of police training is the most substantial change to the inquest process, according to Buck, who said he’s been representing officers during King County inquests since the 1990s. He said law enforcement genuinely want a fair inquest process to give “the community a chance to see what actually happened,” but he said officers are skeptical that a jury of people who are not experts in law enforcement can know enough to make decisions about police training.

“There is virtually no chance that [the jurors] are going to get anything other than an extremely big-picture view of the training and policy issues,” Buck said. “And yet we are asking these jurors to determine whether the officers complied with policy and training. It just puts them in a very awkward position.”

Corey Guilmette, an attorney with the Public Defender Association who was involved in the process to rewrite the rules, said jurors are capable of making these informed decisions. Guilmette pointed out that juries in criminal and civil cases are regularly asked to decide matters involving complicated legal questions.

“A jury is more than capable of determining if an officer followed policy and training,” Guilmette said. “Juries every day are asked to decide questions that have some complexity to them… To say that the inquest process can’t accommodate that ignores what we know about the judicial process more broadly.”

Guilmette and Buck were both attorneys at the Taylor inquest, during which discussion of police training was almost entirely blocked from the proceedings (Guilmette represented the Taylor family, while Buck represented the officers who killed Taylor). The jury at the Taylor inquest certainly noticed the exclusion of training. Jenna Mitchell, one of the inquest jurors in the Taylor case, said in a Seattle Times op-ed published after the hearings concluded that she and other jurors frequently wrote questions to the judge during the proceeding trying to understand police policy but were blocked every single time. Mitchell wrote that because the policy and training were not addressed in the inquest, “our findings told an incomplete story.”

“Che Taylor and his family deserve more than that,” Mitchell added.

Damarius Butts
Damarius Butts. Courtesy of the Butts family

But Will It Work?

When I shared Constantine's new inquest rules with DeRay Mckesson and Sam Sinyangwe, two national leaders in the Black Lives Movement, it only took them a matter of minutes to find holes. I had called them thinking they might think King County's new fact-finding tribunal was a national model, but they quickly saw deficiencies after I sent them Constantine’s 12-page executive order laying out the new rules for local inquests.

Constantine's inquest order doesn’t explicitly say training documents, dash cam, and body cam footage must be included when attorneys for a dead individual's family conduct discovery, a weakness that could allow stonewalling police departments to cover up key information, Mckesson and Sinyangwe said.

In addition, they noted that the new inquest rules are written to shield the officer’s disciplinary history, the inquest juries’ findings are not legally binding against police departments, the inquest hearings can't deliver criminal charges to cops, and the inquests are up to the county executive to call instead of being automatically called every time someone dies in law enforcement’s hands.

Many of the critiques from Mckesson and Sinyangwe are already active worries in the police accountability community.

Constantine’s discretion to call inquests is already being questioned as he delays calling an inquest into a troublesome death this year at the county’s jail. And in the Butts inquest, there are already disagreements over what training documents are permitted within the scope of the hearings.

At one point, Mckesson made a comment that seemed indicative of their overall critique of the process. He was zeroing in on a part of the new inquest statute that describes when a police officer’s disciplinary history can be invoked in an inquest. The statute says an officer’s disciplinary history can be permitted only if the inquest administrator—the judge overseeing the proceedings—determines that the officer's disciplinary history “is directly related to the use of force.”

“This is heavily dependent on the [inquest’s] administrator,” Mckesson said. “The administrator will already have to make definitive determinations about the police use of force for [this part of the statute] to be real.”

His comment also seems broadly applicable. A number of key aspects of the inquest process are still ultimately up to the benevolence of people in power—judges, politicians, the King County executive—giving them significant opportunities to determine whether an inquest will really be meaningful.

Mckesson and Sinyangwe have good reason to be wary of trusting politicians and judges to fix this problem.

America’s epidemic of officer-involved shootings has been ignored by officials for decades. The FBI only started keeping track of statistics on people killed by police officers in 2018, despite there being hundreds of such deaths a year in America.

In the absence of official statistics, journalists have stepped in and found that police killings are stubbornly high. The Washington Post has tracked police killings and demonstrated an increase from 962 police killings in 2016 to 992 last year. Mapping Police Violence, a data project from Mckesson and Sinyangwe, found even larger numbers, with 1,079 people killed in America by police in 2013 and 1,164 killed last year.

Sinyangwe, who is a data scientist as well as an advocate, said that while the nationwide number of police killings hasn’t been reduced, there has been progress on more local levels.

“We have not seen a nationwide reduction in police violence,” Sinyangwe said. “But there’s a more nuanced picture when you look at it jurisdiction by jurisdiction. Particularly in larger cities, you are seeing a pretty substantial reduction in police shootings since 2014. Whereas in more suburban and rural areas, you are seeing an increase. So they offset each other.”

Even with their critiques of King County’s process, Sinyangwe said there is reason to be hopeful.

He hasn’t seen a single process in the United States that he thinks is adequate for dealing with police killings, and said King County's process is definitely better than the internal reviews—things like a prosecuting attorney making decisions regarding criminal charges or a police department doing its own internal assessments—that are usually the sole recourse when police kill someone.

“I think it is good to have this process, compared to a status quo where everything happens behind the scenes,” Sinyangwe said, “either through a force review board where it is all police officers or the criminal justice system, which never holds police officers accountable. The grand jury process is also secretive, so people don’t understand or get access to those proceedings to know how that process was conducted.”

Perhaps King County’s new inquest rules will help make this area one of those places in the US that's able to reduce the number of police killings.

You can watch how it unfolds starting December 9. I'll be watching, too.