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King County reforms how it investigates deadly police shootings

The new process will review not just what happened, but also whether police acted within policy.

Attorney Evan Bariault uses a monitor to show the area where CPR was performed during an inquest into the shooting death of Che Taylor which involved Seattle police officers Michael Spaulding and Scott Miller on Thursday, February 2, 2017, at the King County Courthouse in Seattle. Credit: Johnny Andrews/Seattle Times (court pool photo)

Nine months after King County Executive Dow Constantine put a hold on all inquests into fatal police shootings, his office announced reforms to the fact finding missions on Wednesday. The changes are intended to result in better probes into law enforcement training and protocols and to more accurately determine whether a given deadly encounter could have ended differently.

Standard anytime a death occurs in the line of duty, inquests had the look and feel of a trial — with a judge, jury and two lawyers.

But rather than reach a verdict, jurors were instead asked to answer "yes" or "no" to a series of questions about an incident. The goal was to lay out a baseline of facts about a shooting which could be used to decide whether to file charges.  

For families of shooting victims, however, the process was frustrating in that it only answered what happened, not what could have been different. Those families were not provided with attorneys and the questions rarely dipped beyond the what and into the why. When they did, it was only to conclude whether an officer feared for his or her life, which opponents to the process argued could give the false impression that the shooting was justified or within policy when it was not.

“The inquest system was successful in providing a better understanding of the facts, but many people remained unsatisfied,” said Constantine. “I believe it represented a lost opportunity to learn and to make improvements and to make a more fair and transparent process.”

No longer will the inquest process include a King County District Court judge. Instead, a rotating pool of retired judges will oversee the proceedings. As part of funding approved earlier this year by the King County Council, families of people killed by police will get an attorney from the Department of Public Defense. And the questioner will no longer be provided by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

Most significantly, the jurors will no longer be asked whether an officer feared for his or her life. Instead, they will be asked whether the officer followed protocol and acted in a manner consistent with their training. 

Inquests do not end with a verdict. That won’t change. Even if the jury concludes the death was not within policy, it will be up to the departments to decide what to do with the information.

DeVitta Briscoe, whose brother Che Taylor was killed by police in 2016 and who subsequently sat through an inquest, said “as a result of participating, we wanted to push for a more fair and equitable inquest process.”

“I know that this new process will provide a more satisfactory experience for families and the broader community,” she said.

Katrina Johnson, who is still awaiting an inquest for the officer-involved killing of cousin Charleena Lyles, is cautiously hopeful. “I’m going to be optimistic about the situation, but also I think I’m just going to have to see how it goes,” she said. “For me, I believe that my cousin was murdered and I’m still sitting with that and I do not believe that it was within policy. So I’m not sure what I’m going to get out of this inquest process other than information that will help me begin to grieve and to find closure.”

There are currently nine pending inquests in the county, including those for Lyles and Tommy Le, who was killed by King County Sheriff’s Officers over a year ago. Constantine said he hopes to have the new process implemented by early 2019.

Local police unions have not yet reacted to the new process, but James Schrimpsher, Lodge 27 president of the Washington Fraternal Order of Police, stood in support of the changes Wednesday. He called it “yet another example of law enforcement and the community … coming together together to work collaboratively on an issue. This is how you solve problems: Working together.”

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King County reforms how it investigates deadly police shootings