Constantine convenes county task force to review police shooting inquests

Changes could be made in process to provide more confidence in justice system

Dow Constantine

Dow Constantine

King County Executive Dow Constantine will create a six-member King County Inquest Process Review Committee to review and re-examine the public fact-finding forum to investigate the circumstances surrounding law enforcement shooting deaths.

“The taking of a life by law enforcement must be followed by a public fact-finding forum,” Constantine said in a Tuesday news release. “It is time now to examine how this process unfolds, who participates, and their roles in the proceedings. I have directed the members of the Review Committee to identify any potential changes to make inquests more transparent, fair, and meaningful for all those involved, and to provide greater confidence in our justice system to the entire community.”

State law authorizes elected coroners or appointed medical examiners to investigate the causes and circumstances of any death involving a member of law enforcement in the performance of their duties. The King County Charter requires an inquest, and King County Code gives the executive control over the inquest process.

An executive order lays out the sequence, which begins when the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office recommends the executive convene an inquest. The prosecutor recommends an inquest after every officer-involved shooting death.

Inquests are conducted in District Court before a six-member jury who listen to testimony and then answer questions to determine the significant factual issues involved in the case.

Executive orders governing inquests have not been examined in any significant way since 2001.

Members of the new inquest committee include:

• Jeffrey Beaver, Seattle attorney since 1986 practicing commercial and real estate law. He is also a member of the Washington State Supreme Court’s Minority & Justice Commission.

• Fabienne “Fae” Brooks, retired as Chief of the Criminal Investigations Division with the King County Sheriff’s Office after over 26 years of service. She is an experienced trainer and consultant nationwide on police/community relationship and coalition building as well as the co-director Law Enforcement Programs for the National Coalition Building Institute, an international non-profit leadership development network.

• Sandra “Sam” Pailca, Assistant General Counsel at Microsoft who served two three-year terms as the City of Seattle’s Director of the Office of Professional Accountability, a police oversight agency. She is a past board member of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.

• Rick Williams, brother of John T. Williams and member of the Nitinat Band (Eagle Clan).

• Judge Dean S. Lum, King County Superior Court judge, assigned to the criminal department. He serves on the ABA Commission on Immigration, the President’s Minority Community Advisory Committee for the University of Washington, and the Board of the Washington State Superior Court Judge’s Association.

The five members will select a sixth. The Inquest Review Committee is charged with reviewing and reexamining the inquest process to determine what, if any, changes could or should be made to improve the process both for the public and the effected parties.

Topics may include:

• The representation of the family of the deceased and whether this can or should be provided for at public expense.

• The scope and standards of proof for inquests.

• The role of jurors and whether they are necessary to the core purpose and goal of the inquest.

• The nature and role of the interrogatories and whether that form of fact finding (by the judge or jury) is useful.

• Whether judges conducting inquests is useful and whether there might exist alternatives.

• The role of the prosecutor in coordinating the transmission of the investigative materials, recommending cases for inquest and serving as an aid to the judge – especially in light of the role of the prosecution to determine criminal liability.

• How the inquest fits in with factors outside the authority of the executive order establishing inquest procedures, e.g., state law, internal law enforcement agency review, civilian oversight agencies, etc.

• Alternatives or parallel processes 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.

A final report from the Review Committee is due by March. Interested participants to join the Review Committee can send an email to: inquestreview@kingcounty.gov.

The county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight applauded Constantine’s decision to form the task force.

“Executive Constantine has taken a critical first step toward addressing the dissatisfaction and frustration with the inquest process vocalized by people throughout the county,” OLEO Director Deborah Jacobs said. “The public yearns for a robust and more just system that serves the needs of all parties searching for answers amidst tragedy.”

OLEO was established to hold the King County Sheriff’s Office accountable for providing fair and just policing services, and makes recommendations to the Sheriff’s Office and the County Council to improve systems, policies, training and practices.

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