King County Executive Dow Constantine signed an executive order Wednesday making substantial reforms to the county’s inquest process for reviewing incidents involving use of deadly force by police – changes that are intended to increase accountability and transparency.
The inquest process is a longstanding system in King County to scrutinize deaths that involve police officers from both the Sheriff’s Office and municipal law enforcement agencies. The county charter gives the executive broad authority over the process, which typically involved a jury of four to six people sitting in a county court room tasked with finding out whether the involved officer feared for their life – one of the legal standards for justifying police deadly force in Washington state. (A District Court judge administered the proceedings while a county prosecutor led the questioning as a neutral facilitator.)
However, critics have argued that the system was one-sided since families of the deceased couldn’t call their own witnesses, submit evidence, or even address the jury. According to The Seattle Times, only one local police officer was criminally charged following a county inquest—and that was in 1971.
In response, Constantine in January halted nine pending inquests involving incidents where police fatally shot individuals to convene a six-member committee of stakeholders could review to the inquest process and make recommendations. Those recommendations were released in March.
The inquests will be restarted early next year, Constantine said. Those cases include shooting deaths by the Kent and Auburn police and a third case about the fatal shooting of a Kent man in Seattle.
• An Auburn Police officer fatally shot Isaiah Obet on June 10, 2017. Police say the officer shot Obet after the 25-year-old man entered a home armed with a knife and later tried to carjack an occupied vehicle.
• Eugene D. Nelson, 20, died in Kent from multiple gunshot wounds after he allegedly tried to flee in a vehicle while dragging an officer Aug. 9, 2017, in the 23600 block of 104th Avenue Southeast. Two officers shot Nelson. Police had responded to a violation of a domestic violence no-contact order at a East Hill business.
• Damarius D. Butts, of Kent, died from multiple gunshot wounds after a reported shootout with Seattle Police on April 20, 2017, when he fled after allegedly robbing a 7-Eleven store, 627 First Ave., in downtown Seattle.
Two previous Kent Police shootings already went through the inquest process.
• An inquest jury ruled in December that a Kent Police officer feared for his life when he fatally shot Giovonn Joseph-McDade, 20, of Auburn, on June 24, 2017, after he reportedly tried to use his vehicle to run over the officer after a short pursuit on the East Hill.
Sonia Joseph, the mother of Giovonn Joseph-McDade, and three of her supporters stormed out of court in front of the judge to protest the inquest into the fatal shooting of her son.
• An inquest jury also ruled in October 2017 that three Kent officers feared for their lives when they shot and killed Patrick Reddeck, 38, in October 2016 inside his Kent home. Officers were at the home related to a suspicious death in August 2016 at the residence of Amy Derheim, 41, the girlfriend of Reddeck. The two lived together.
The most consequential of Constantine’s changes are a new rule allowing involved parties to call upon witnesses and a mandate that juries in inquests now be tasked with determining whether officers involved in deaths were following law enforcement department policy and training. Constantine said that the goal of this is to help identify law enforcement policies that are leading to fatal incidents.
“If police did not follow their training and departmental policies, we need to know why or why not so that those departments can examine the work they’re doing and make changes in the future that will prevent future tragedies,” he said. “If police did follow training and protocol, we need to determine if there are improvements to be made.
“The point is not to put an individual officer on trial. It is to make sure that we are asking the right questions and taking appropriate actions,” he added. “I believe the new executive order will provide families, law enforcement officers, and community members with greater transparency and accountability.”
Constantine’s other changes include finding retired judges to serve as administrators of inquests instead of District Court judges and removing the authority of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office to compel officers to testify before the jury (instead, a senior law enforcement officer of the relevant agency will be allowed to testify about their department’s use of force policy and training). Additionally, families will be appointed an attorney from the county Department of Public Defense to represent them during the inquest proceedings.
Under the new system, juries won’t come away with any binding verdict beyond their assessment of whether or not a given officer followed procedure in a fatal incident. They will only present their findings to the involved law enforcement agency for further consideration.
Deborah Jones, director of the King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, praised the reforms.
“Executive Constantine’s changes to the inquest process address some of the deficiencies that have left the public dissatisfied,” Jones wrote in a statement. “These changes have the potential to fill gaps in the public’s desire for information, for appointed representation for the families of people killed by police, and for assessment of whether training and policy were followed.”
Meanwhile, the Seattle Community Police Commission released a statement calling the executive order a “big step forward for police reform in our region.”
At the Oct. 3 press conference, DeVitta Briscol, the brother of Che Taylor – an African American man fatally shot by Seattle police officers in 2016 -and a member of Not This Time, a local organization seeking to reduce fatalities caused by police, said that the new process will “provide a more satisfactory experience for families and the broader community.”
On the law enforcement side, James Schrimpsher, a member of the Washington Fraternal Order of Police, stood by Constantine at the Oct. 3 presser and called the reforms a good example of law enforcement and other stakeholders working collaboratively.
However, a Facebook post issued by the Seattle Police Officers Guild several hours after Constantine announced his reforms criticized the changes: “Another example of politics being inserted into Public Safety to the detriment of our community,” it reads. “Sadly police are not as concerned with being killed in the line of duty as they are now more fearful of being politically persecuted/smeared in the line of duty. Police Officers are heroes that swore an oath to protect the public. We want to just do our job. We are all for accountability but when did it become okay to make us the bad guys?”
• Reporters Josh Kelety of Seattle Weekly and Steve Hunter of the Kent Reporter contributed to this story.