Seattle Soundings: Inquests On Trial

On January 8, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced a moratorium on the county’s unique inquest process for fatal on-duty law enforcement shootings. The moratorium will extend until a task force, named by Constantine in December, reviews possible reforms to the process. That task force’s recommendations are due in March.

Two weeks later, King County Council members unanimously passed a bill to provide, for the first time, legal representation for families of inquest victims. This has been one of many changes in how King County reviews fatal police shootings that community activists have been demanding for decades.

The format of the inquest process - in which a six-person jury is led through a narrowly defined “fact-finding” series of questions, and then asked solely to decide whether the shooting was “justified” or “not justified” - is not meant to determine criminal or civil liability. But in practice, it’s virtually guaranteed to return findings that appear to exonerate law enforcement officers. Of the several hundred such shootings since King County adopted its current system in 1971 - including ten in 2017 and over 70 in the last ten years - only once has an inquest jury concluded that the shooting was “not justified.” That was the notorious 2010 killing of Native American woodcarver John T. Williams.

There are a number of reasons for the outcomes - consistent over a wide variety of circumstances, including some highly controversial ones - but two of the most basic are defense attorneys and cross-examination.

Jurors hear from witnesses, who testify under oath - but those witnesses don’t face any cross-examination. That means attorneys for law enforcement officers can coax a narrative out of officers with no critical scruntiny. Jurors are left to choose between what the officers say and what anyone else might say if it’s contradictory - and in that circumstance, officers’ testimony will almost alway be given more weight.

The narrowness of the questions that witnesses receive, and that jurors must answer, doesn’t include an assessment of what might have been done differently. “I had no choice but to shoot” is an unassailable statement if jurors aren’t told that there were other choices consistent with department policy. And that doesn’t even get to larger questions about police training, possible patterns of past abuses by the officer, or any of a number of other possibly critical factors. The jurors simply aren’t told.

However, an inquest jury’s finding of a “justified” shooting invariably is used in the defense against any subsequent civil case. That’s why, despite the inquest system’s having been a target of criticism for over a generation, the need to reform it has gained sudden urgency. It appears likely that I-940, the De-Escalate Washington initiative that would change our state’s impossibly defined standard for criminal prosecution of on-duty law enforcement shootings, will make it onto this year’s ballot for statewide voters. If it passes, it would, for the first time in modern history, make the prosecution of bad law enforcement killings feasible in Washington State.

Except in King County.

If our county’s unreformed inquest process continues to return “justified” verdicts with near-automatic precision, prosecutors have to weigh that result in deciding whether to bring charges in a controversial shooting. Even if the statewide standard for such prosecutions is relaxed, most prosecutors are unlikely to pursue a case that has already been through a legal process that returned what police invariably call the “exoneration” of their officers - even though the process was never meant to provide that sort of a definitive judgment.

The passage of I-940 would make prosecution of law enforcement officers easier in 38 other counties, but not in the county - ours - that accounts for by far the largest number of fatal law enforcement shootings.

In that context, what Constantine’s task force decides to recommend, and how King County Council members respond, becomes critical. And there’s no guarantee that any changes will be made at all. We’ve been here before, most recently in 2008, when a similar task force was unable to agree on any recommendations, and no changes were made.

It’s hard to imagine Constantine’s group can generate anything more than modest proposals in only the three months they’ve been given. Without more time, they’ll likely leave in place a format that doesn’t allow for any real examination of culpability, or even what might have been done differently. And even that relatively benign change faces opposition. Even before the group had met, the county’s largest police union, the Seattle Police Officers Guild, tweeted that “ “SPOG does not believe that the current inquest process should be changed.”

Why would it, when that process has “exonerated” officers almost without fail for nearly half a century - and

would continue to do so, whether I-940 passes or not?