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King County Executive resumes inquests into deadly police use of force

King County Executive Dow Constantine. (KIRO Radio, Hanna Scott)

Inquests are ordered as fact-finding missions in deadly police use of force cases in King County by Executive Dow Constantine.

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They have been around for decades and are meant to pull the curtain back for the public, not determine civil or criminal liability.

However, after years of complaints from families of those killed by police who felt the process was unfair and skewed in favor of officers, County Executive Dow Constantine halted inquests in January of 2018.

“The inquest system was successful in providing a better understanding of the facts, but many people remained unsatisfied,” Executive Constantine said, as he announced the resumption of inquests on Thursday.

“I believe that also represented a lost opportunity to learn and to make improvements and to create a more fair and transparent process. So last year I ordered a hold on all inquests and convened a six person committee to review and reexamine the process,” he added.

That committee recommended a series of changes to the process, some of which Constantine has now put in place.

There are several major changes, including no longer using sitting judges, and providing lawyers for the families of people killed by police, who will also now be able to offer a statement about their loved one.

There will also be more transparency with audio of the proceedings posted online.

The largest change is the expansion of the questions that will be looked at.

“Under the new system, the panel of jurors will now hear testimony about training and about policies, and they will be asked whether the officer or officers followed their training and those policies,” Constantine said.

He says the goal is to better understand what happened and continue to improve.

“If police did not follow their training and departmental policies, we need to know why not, and the agency needs to act and prevent others from making the same mistakes,” Constantine said.

“If police did follow the training and protocol, we need to understand what improvements can be made to that training and protocol to prevent future tragedies. The point is not to put an individual on trial, but to make sure that we are asking the right questions and taking the appropriate actions in response to the answers we receive,” he continued.

Once those answers about whether training and policy were followed are available, there is only so much the inquest can do, which is basically provide findings.

“It goes to the chief or the other administrator of that police agency to make the changes that they need to make,” Constantine explained, adding it will be up to those department heads whether to make any adjustments to training and policy.

Those heads of the police agencies will also be called to testify about training, and policy. It will be up to the officer or officers themselves whether they choose to testify.

Overall, Constantine believes this will help end confusion over the process, and build community trust.

“I believe the new executive order will provide families, law enforcement officers, and community members with greater transparency and accountability, and I believe it will give the public more confidence in the legal system, and give law enforcement and policy makers greater ability to reflect on how training and policies come into play in difficult and confusing situations, and how they may be improved,” Constantine said.

Ted Buck, an attorney who represents law enforcement in inquests disagrees.

“The new inquest process asks a panel of laypersons with no expertise whatsoever in law enforcement to opine on policy and training. It is the functional equivalent of asking jurors in a three day medical malpractice case to opine on better training and policy for brain surgeons – doesn’t make a lot of sense given their utter lack of training and experience in the arena,” Buck said.

“There seems to be a perception that every officer involved fatality involves some failure of training. The problem is that police officers are always reacting to circumstances and they cannot stop suspects from doing things that will require officers to defend themselves,” Buck continued. “No matter what the level of training is, officer involved fatalities will continue as long as people continue to threaten the public and threaten police officers with deadly weapons.”

Attorneys for families of those killed by police say they support the inquest changes.

“We appreciate the changes put into place, I thing we have a better inquest process than we did before these changes were put into place,” said Corey Guillmette, who is the lawyer for the family of Charleena Lyles, who was shot and killed by Seattle Police in 2017, and is one of the pending inquests.

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Still, he and the Lyles family are concerned about how long it is going to take to get answers.

“My cousin was killed almost two years ago, and I’m wanting to know what’s happening moving forward so that our family can get a little closure, and actually find out what happened to Charleena,” said Lyles cousin Katrina.

“What has me concerned is that we’re still going to be waiting for a really long time, and we’ve already waited patiently for a really long time,” she added.

There were a told of five pending inquests when the process was halted. Charleena Lyles’ inquest will be third in line now that they’ve resumed. But, there is no clear timeline on when the first one will even start, how long it will take, and how long after that the next one will happen.

In addition to the five pending inquests, there are seven new deadly use of force cases expected to have inquests ordered.

The first inquest ordered by Constantine on May 20 will be into the SPD shooting death of Damarius Butts in 2017.

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