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While King County reforms how it investigates police shootings, cases pile up

Fifteen cases of death from law enforcement are waiting to be addressed. The number is likely to rise.

Katrina Johnson at Seattle City Hall on Nov. 13, 2018. (Photo by Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

It’s been nearly two years since two Seattle police officers shot and killed Charleena Lyles in her  North Seattle home. But her death has yet to be examined through the King County-led, fact-finding procedure required for all deaths that involve law enforcement.

That’s because shortly after Lyles died, King County Executive Dow Constantine halted these mandatory proceedings — known as inquests — amid complaints that they favored law enforcement and did little to prevent future fatal encounters.

A group of advocates convened by Constantine, including Lyles’ cousin, Katrina Johnson, issued recommendations for reshaping the process last fall. But the new procedures have yet to be implemented. 

Meanwhile, a grim queue is growing. When Constantine first paused inquests, five had been ordered. Now, King County staff have identified at least 15 cases likely in need of an inquest once the process begins again. They include Lyles; Tommy Le, who was shot by King County Sheriff’s officers when a pen he was holding was mistaken for a knife; Eugene Nelson, who was killed by Kent police; and Iosia Faletogo, who was killed by a Seattle police officer after a foot chase on New Year’s Eve. 

Some advocates say that number should be higher. On Monday, the Public Defender Association called for an inquest into the death last year of Derek Hutchinson in a King County jail. Additionally, the family of Giovann Joseph-McDade, who was killed by Kent police officers in 2017, wants another inquest ordered under the new protocols.

For families waiting for their hearing, the delay is at once painful, but seen as necessary. “I know that we’ve had to wait a while, but I’d rather wait and have a process that’s more fair,” Lyles’ cousin, Johnson, said in an interview.

At the same time, it’s been difficult, as she and the rest of her family wait for a public accounting of everything that led to Lyles’ death.

“You’re just kind of stuck,” she said. “You don’t have that sense of rest, that sense that you can move forward and progress. Everyone’s just sitting like you’re in quicksand. I just want to be able to finally know what happened, deal with that and make peace with whatever that is so that I’m able to begin to live again. I feel like I’m just existing.”

The procedures are expected to restart soon. The question is, with so many cases needing a hearing, how long will it take to work through the backlog.

Inquests are a unique, and often confusing, process. A jury is called, but it does not render a verdict. Instead, members of the jury are provided with a list of questions to be answered yes or no. Before the recent efforts at overhauling the process, the questions never ventured outside a chronological series of events. For example, during the inquest into the death of Che Taylor, who was shot and killed by police in 2016, the questions included: Was the fire department called? Was aid eventually given by an officer? If CPR had been administered earlier, would he have survived?

The purpose is to create a set of common facts. But until recently, the families were not guaranteed an attorney to represent them in the proceeding, which some advocates said led to outcomes that favored police. “The process was so slanted and so unjust that families didn’t even have attorneys,” Andre Taylor said in an interview. Taylor founded the police accountability organization Not This Time after his brother, Che, was killed, and has been outspoken on the inquest issue.

Additionally, advocates called for closer examinations of the policies at the police department at the center of a given investigation.

The King County Council voted last year to provide families with attorneys. Separately, Constantine signed off on a series of changes. Jurors can now answer whether or not an officer’s actions followed policy. Leadership in a given department may be called on to answer questions about policy. Hearing examiners, rather than Superior Court judges, will oversee the hearings. And defense attorneys from the Department of Public Defense will be provided to families.

Johnson, a member of the group that issued recommendations, said she was satisfied with the changes. “I felt like all the recommendations, if not most of them, that we raised were actually taken into consideration,” she said.

Alex Fryer, a spokesperson for Constantine, said the process should be finalized and the necessary people hired by the end of March. The order with which the inquests will be conducted — by date of the incident or by when an inquest was ordered — is still being determined, Fryer said.

Working through the queue could be slow. In a briefing to the King County Council last a month, a staff member from the County Executive’s Office said they would not be able to run concurrent proceedings. The actual proceedings can take anywhere from a few days to over a week. But the preparation, including discovery, can be lengthy. Corey Guilmette with the Public Defender Association said he hopes that discovery and pre-inquest hearings can take place at the same time to move things along.

Regarding Hutchinson’s death in custody, Constantine’s office maintains that policy does not mandate an inquest into inmates’ deaths, despite assertions by Guilmette.

“However, the Executive has the discretion to order an inquest ‘in any other case as occasionally determined by the Executive, such as the death occurring during contact with non-law enforcement personnel,” Fryer said in an email.

For Johnson, she said she assumes that Lyles’ inquest will occur well after the two-year anniversary of her death this June. She has faith that’s for a good reason — but it could run out.

“I assume that all the parties that are in charge of rolling out the new inquest are doing their due diligence and working as hard as they can,” she said. “I would just say that there are families out here waiting and we cannot continue to wait forever. They need to speed up.”

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While King County reforms how it investigates police shootings, cases pile up

About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman is a staff reporter at Crosscut focused on local politics.