In Montana, coroner’s inquests are conducted for every fatal police shooting in that state and whenever someone dies in law enforcement custody. The same requirement exists in Nevada, with Las Vegas authorities taking the extra step of televising their inquests. And elsewhere, communities are embracing inquests to help ensure public accountability as the number of officer-involved shootings escalates.
Now, following a rash of fatal police shootings statewide, including four in the past four months in Spokane County, some legislators want to make inquests mandatory in Washington, too. King County typically holds inquests into officer-involved shootings and allows a lawyer for the family of the deceased to participate. Legislation to require inquests for all fatal law enforcement shootings and in-custody deaths in the state is expected to be introduced during the 2011 session.
“This is a quicker, more transparent way to understand what taxpayer-paid servants – public servants – are doing,” said state Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and an intended bill sponsor. “These inquests answer what long, drawn-out litigation otherwise would have answered … and when they do it, they speak with authority.”
Medical examiners in Spokane County have avoided inquests and county commissioners have largely steered clear of the issue even though Prosecutor Steve Tucker publicly called for greater use of inquests in 2006 after the fatal Spokane police confrontation with Otto Zehm, the unarmed, mentally ill janitor mistakenly identified as a theft suspect. The last inquest conducted here was 29 years ago.