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Coroners say inquests offer transparency

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.”

Dan Blasdel, the coroner in Franklin County, believes a statewide inquest requirement is a good idea.

“It gets the good old boy syndrome out of it,” said Blasdel, adding that public skepticism is understandable when neighboring law enforcement agencies investigate each other. “It sort of gets away from ‘Well, it’s just one agency covering up for another agency.’ That’s what an inquest is for – it’s to bring the facts out into the open and show the public.”

Blasdel said he’s conducted just two inquests in his 16 years as coroner. But police shootings are rare in the Pasco area. Blasdel said he’s seen just one since he was elected in 1994.

Police shootings are uncommon in Montana, where inquests have long been mandatory.

Montana authorities say the inquests have helped foster greater public acceptance of the thorough investigative work done by law enforcement agencies.

Powell County Coroner John Pohle, who has presided over more than 100 inquests under the Montana law, said they provide necessary “checks and balances.”

“We’re making sure that nobody did anything wrong, and making it so that nobody tries to pass the buck,” he said. “Nothing’s being hidden under the rug.”

Spokane County – population 460,000 – has seen five fatal officer-involved shootings this year. Four have occurred in the past four months. In two additional police shootings, one described as an unintentional shooting of a pregnant drug suspect as she tried to flee through a window, the individuals survived.

A similar rash of police shootings in the Las Vegas area this year prompted elected officials to overhaul the inquest process.

“We had four right in a row that really created some unhappiness,” said Susan Brager, a Clark County commissioner in Las Vegas. “The public felt there wasn’t enough transparency.”

The county of about 2 million people has seen about two dozen fatal police shootings in 2010.

Coroner inquests into fatal officer-involved shootings have long been mandatory in Nevada. Now all inquests in Clark County are being televised, and an ombudsman is hired to represent family of the deceased during the hearings.

A panel of representatives from police, prosecutors, the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP made the recommendation after talking with King County officials in Seattle, which was one of the first communities to allow an attorney for the deceased to ask questions during the inquest proceedings. “I think letting the public and whoever was affected have a say is important,” Brager said. “You don’t want the fox lurking over the henhouse.”

But, she said, “we’re trying to balance it between the officers and the public, and that can be very difficult.”

Commissioner Steve Sisolak was one of two Clark County commissioners in Las Vegas who opposed the ombudsman because dozens of officers have said they’ll refuse to testify in the inquests rather than face cross-examination by an ombudsman representing the family.

“I’m a firm believer that you’ve got two people who really know what happened. One is the dead person, and the other is the officer,” Sisolak said. “If the officer takes the Fifth and says ‘I’m not going to participate,’ what facts are you going to find?”

The recent overhaul in Clark County renamed juries as “inquest panels” that make findings of fact instead of fault. The county attorney then decides if criminal charges should be filed.

The process is similar in Montana, where county attorneys conduct the inquests while coroners preside. Pohle said jury decisions need only a majority vote. Jurors rarely fault the police officers, but Pohle said the inquests are not called because law enforcement are assumed to have done something wrong.

Rather, it’s a way of protecting law enforcement from unwarranted rumors and fear.

Told that Spokane County does not conduct inquests, Pohle said, “you’d think that the county attorney would want to protect his law enforcement personnel a little bit better.”

But Pierce County Medical Examiner Thomas Clark, like his colleagues in Spokane, said he thinks inquests are unnecessary.

Pierce County has seen two officer-involved shootings since Clark was appointed in June. In each, Clark said, witnesses cooperated and information was easily available.

“We actually have a pretty good mechanism for investigating officer-involved shootings,” Clark said. The prosecutor’s office employs an investigator who probes each shooting alongside law enforcement.

“They tell me anything I want to know,” he said. “The (inquest) mechanism is there if we ever need to use it, but I can’t foresee that need.”

King County changed its inquest process last spring, requiring them to be held within 90 days of a death.

In exchange, inquests are no longer mandatory for all fatal law enforcement shootings and in-custody deaths, though they are commonly used anyway. The county’s elected executive determines whether to hold an inquest based on a recommendation from the county prosecutor.

Juries of six answer a series of questions, typically regarding whether an officer feared for his or her life when deadly force was used. The prosecutor uses those answers to determine if criminal charges should be filed.