Judge Michael Spearmen during a pre-inquest hearing in 2018.
Judge Michael Spearmen during a pre-inquest hearing in 2018. Lester Black

Police reform advocates were happy when, over a year ago, King County Executive Dow Constantine rolled out a new process for conducting inquest hearings, which investigate instances when cops kill. Constantine had taken an opaque process that was accused of whitewashing police killings and turned it into a radically open proceeding that many skeptics had faith in.

But those transparent hearings may now never take place—at least if the city of Seattle has its way.

The county’s new inquest hearings are in danger thanks to a lawsuit from an unlikely opponent: the city of Seattle. The city, which has a mayor and city council that pride themselves on being progressive on policing, has sued Constantine in the hopes that they can turn back the clock on his reforms to the inquest hearing process. The city’s lawsuit claims nearly every single reform Constantine advanced is illegal.

City Attorney Pete Holmes signed off on the lawsuit but his office declined to say if any other political leaders, like Mayor Jenny Durkan or the Seattle City Council, weighed in on the lawsuit’s arguments. A spokesperson for Durkan declined to comment, directing questions to Holmes.

The city of Seattle is joined in their lawsuit by several police officers who have killed people in the line of duty.

The families of people recently killed by cops in King County are also joining the legal fray, although they are asking the court to move the process in the opposite direction. The family of Damarius Butts, who was killed by Seattle Police Department cops in 2017, is suing to force cops who have killed to take the stand. Constantine’s original rules gave killer cops the option of declining to give testimony.

The family of Isaiah Obet, who was killed by Auburn police in 2017, is suing to expand the inquest hearing process to include criminal culpability and give an inquest hearing’s jury the right to recommend criminal charges against officers who kill. The inquest hearing process is currently structured to be a fact-finding tribunal only, not assign criminal or civil charges.

The lawsuits were filed in King County Superior Court last month, where they are currently still awaiting a hearing schedule. There’s a legitimate chance they could make their way to the state’s Supreme Court. That means the county’s inquest hearings, which have been put on hold since January of 2018 and now involve nearly 20 victims of police violence, will be on hold even longer.

Dow Constantine is trying to expand investigations into deadly encounters with police. The city is trying to stop him.
Dow Constantine is trying to expand investigations into deadly encounters with police. The city is trying to stop him. Lester Black

“A more fair and transparent process”

Inquest hearings have existed longer than the state of Washington. Back when this part of the country was still a territory, the government would occasionally use an inquest hearing and a jury, rather than a coroner, to establish the cause of an individual’s death. This is why the process is sometimes called a coroner’s inquest.

“[T]he purpose of a coroner’s inquest,” according to the 1994 Washington State Supreme Court Case Carrick v. Lock, “is to determine who died, what was the cause of death, and what were the circumstances surrounding the death, including the identification of any actors who may be criminally liable for the death.”

In King County, inquest hearings are mandatory whenever a member of law enforcement is involved in a death. Criminal charges against cops who kill are essentially nonexistent in Washington, so the inquest process provides a courtroom setting to establish the facts surrounding cop killing, even when the case doesn’t end up in a criminal courtroom.

Inquest hearings currently don’t assign criminal guilt or civil penalties, but they are supposed to provide a better understanding of why a given cop has killed someone. Similar to a criminal proceeding, a jury is called and then attorneys present evidence and witness testimony. At the end of the proceeding, the jury is asked to answer a series of yes or no questions about the killing.

However, police reform advocates argued that the county’s existing inquest process was biased in favor of the absolving cops of any wrongdoing. During the old inquests, attorneys representing the families of killed individuals were barred from mentioning the disciplinary history of the cops in question, police training and whether the cops followed it, and whether the life could have been saved had something else happened.

The inquests would frequently hone in on one question—did the officer fear for their life? When the inquest jury would, inevitably, agree that the cop was scared before they fired the shots, that would automatically make the killing seem justified, regardless of whether the cop had erred or broken police policy on their way to freaking out and killing someone.

To make matters worse, the supposedly public process was conducted in hearings that were not easy for the public to view. Journalists were even frequently barred from recording the hearing’s audio.

Then Constantine changed that. In January of 2018, Constantine halted all current inquests and called for a committee to review the process and issue recommendations. Ten months later, Constantine released a new set of inquest hearing rules, and police reform advocates saw a lot of new policies they liked, including:

• Broadening the inquest’s scope to include police policy and training;

• Expanding the scope of the hearings to ask not only the facts of the case but also whether changing law enforcement policies could have prevented the death;

• Forcing the police chief or other head of the law enforcement agency in question to testify;

• Allowing an officer’s disciplinary history to be discussed;

• Prohibiting questions like, “Did the officer fear for their life?”;

• Giving more power for pre-inquest discovery and subpoenas;

• And providing video livestreaming of the hearings.

Constantine said that his aim was to make the inquests a “more fair and transparent process." In a statement sent to The Stranger on Wednesday, he also said:

This new Executive Order made significant reforms, and expanded the fact finding scope of inquests to help us better understand what happened, and continue to improve. The point was not to put an individual officer on trial, but to make sure we asked the right questions, and took the appropriate actions.

The city of Seattle is not happy with Constantine's attempt to shine a brighter light on police killings. The city's lawsuit claims Constantine acted illegally when he established the reforms. The city is also attacking many of the specific aspects of the new policy that were advocated for by the police reform community.

The city calls the livestreaming of hearings “an invasion into the privacy rights” of the killed individual and the cops. The city says Constantine is “overreaching” his authority by including officer training as well as discipline history during the hearings. And they claim that attorneys representing families of killed individuals should be blocked from engaging in discovery—the collection of documents related to the hearing—until the day the hearing begins. Given that it takes months to conduct and receive discovery, the city is calling for the families to be effectively blocked from compiling evidence to argue their side.

If the city wins in court, they will have successfully protected officers across King County from being closely scrutinized when they kill people.

It’s not clear which leader within the city is driving this strategy. Dan Nolte, a spokesperson for the city attorney’s office, said that the city would not divulge who decided to sue the county.

"The decision making process for which entity in the City made the decision to initiate a legal action or what arguments to present is attorney-client privileged," Nolte said in an e-mail.

Attorney-client privilege prevents attorneys from divulging information, but it does not bar clients from talking. So, if Mayor Jenny Durkan, who is technically one of the city attorney’s clients, wanted to distance herself from this cop-shielding lawsuit she very well could. She declined to provide any comment for this story.

This isn’t the first time Durkan’s government has protected officers from closer scrutiny when they hurt people. During the city’s last contract negotiation with the Seattle Police Department’s largest police union, the city agreed in November of 2018 to water down the existing accountability laws so that cops could have a more lenient appeal process for when they are disciplined. The federal judge conducting oversight on SPD’s court-mandated reforms ruled the city out of compliance because of Durkan’s watered-down discipline review process.

Constantine said Wednesday that he looked forward to the court ruling on these actions so the county can start the process of understanding how law enforcement has killed people in the county.

"There are 20 pending inquests, and I am aware of the urgent need to follow up on these incidents for families, law enforcement, and the community," Constantine said.