Points of contention on police inquests in King County

Inquests frequently unfold against a backdrop of sadness and drama: Family members’ shock at the sudden loss of a loved one at the hands of the police, and police defending their actions. It can be insensitive and frustrating.

Recently, King County Executive Dow Constantine and the mayors of Kent, Auburn and Federal Way exchanged political fire over Constantine’s wanting to change the rules on how inquests would be processed.

Inquests are fact-finding hearings held by a 4-6 member jury. Under state law and county charter, an investigation is required for any death involving a member of law enforcement during the fulfillment of their job duties. The county believes that includes cities — and the cities disagree.

In 2018, in response to complaints from family members of those who had died from being shot by city police officers, Constantine formed a citizens group to make recommendations on improving the process. After the release of his new rules, the cities filed a lawsuit to stop the rules from taking effect.

Constantine wanted the cities to withdraw their lawsuit and allow the six inquests that have been on hold since 2017 to be heard and bring the families closure. Some community members believe the inquest process has been unbalanced in favor of police, and some families likely believe the police acted beyond what was necessary or reasonable to resolve the situation without using lethal force. The cities responded by accusing Constantine of playing politics, exceeding his authority and trying to bully them. Renton has joined the lawsuit, and Seattle has withdrawn.

The public might ask: Why is this of interest? Don’t both sides want the same thing — a fact based conclusion?

Yes, and Kent Mayor Dana Ralph and Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell, along with Executive Constantine, all used the word “accountability” as one of their goals in a recent story on inquests. But it is what gets considered in that conclusion that is at issue. Anytime a police officer uses lethal force, there should be a public process to determine the facts of what happened.

The national tide of public opinion on racial justice and police use of force has undergone dramatic change in the past few months from what it was three years ago, prior to the public being able to see a cellphone video every night.

Constantine’s more regional view seeks accountability through the inquest format. In contrast, suburban police have political clout with mayors, city council members and community leaders in their home jurisdictions, and they view accountability as a local issue. Their word has always been taken over a suspect. The cities believe Constantine has created a contest between the deceased’s family and the police officers involved — rather than focusing on facts. Actually, Constantine appears to be broadening what facts can be considered in the inquest conclusion as part of accountability.

While the county and cities disagree on several points, there are three that appear to be key points of contention.

The old system was limited to facts and circumstances surrounding the death. The new system expands the interpretation of facts to include questions about department policy and officer training.

Under the old system, the jurors were asked whether the officer feared for his or her life during the incident. Under the new system, jurors may be asked if the officer’s actions were consistent with department training and policies. Jurors would no longer be asked if the officer or officers feared for their lives.

Under the old system, involved officers could voluntarily testify or be subpoenaed to testify (officer maintains Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination). Under the new system, the lead investigator of the incident will testify and the chief law enforcement officer (or designee) will answer questions about training and policy. The involved officer can voluntarily testify, but not be subpoenaed. However, if the subpoenaed officer does not testify, the officer may not be represented by legal counsel.

On June 15, Constantine added a compromise on the last issue: An involved officer may voluntarily testify or be subpoenaed to testify (officer maintains Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination) and the officer may be represented by legal counsel throughout the proceeding, regardless of whether they testify.

Constantine’s view is of concern for the families and a desire to expand the facts that can be admitted for accountability — and may benefit in a new era racial justice. Meanwhile, the cities want to protect their police officers, avoid court, or resolve training and policy questions in court and not at the inquest.

A city police officer’s training, and knowledge of city policy, is always key to any court cross-examination in a “use of deadly force” case. Whether the officer testifies and how well he or she handles the cross-examination are always crucial in the eyes of the jury. Also, an officer “fearing for their life” has always been the magic phrase to avoid criminal culpability.

Constantine’s inclusion in the inquest phase would provide a more thorough record and may determine what cases would go to court.

I spent 12 years as Mayor of Auburn, and 11 years in two management positions with King County. I argued for and against each side on different policies. This is not a case where settlement or compromise are possible. Cities question why they are even part of the inquest process and feel it should apply only to the King County Sheriff. The county is confident that Constantine’s authority is broad enough to withstand a city’s legal challenge.

Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus makes a viable point: “I believe a statewide process would be beneficial and equitable to everyone. Auburn is in a unique situation. We are part of two counties. I pray we would never utilize the process. It should be the same regardless of where an incident might occur.”

The case is scheduled for July, and the court will need to decide less on the two sides’ political differences, and more on Constantine’s authority and whether they want criminal culpability to be a new part of the inquest process.

But the Legislature will meet in January and may meet in special session this August. Seattle withdrew from the case, believing the Legislature would be the best place to sort out the issues. While this battle may be just starting, both sides need to be aware of the message they are sending to minority constituent groups. Constantine’s effort is more reflective of current public opinion.

Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact bjroegner@comcast.net.