December 23, 2010 in Opinion

Editorial: Don’t look to inquests as common solution


Spokane County voters made it clear nearly 15 years ago that they wanted to take politics out of death reviews.

Don’t look now, but politics is trying to barge back in.

A recent surge of police-involved shootings has ignited high emotions, understandably. But a move toward heavy reliance on inquests, possibly even requiring the county medical examiner to summon a jury every time a person is killed by law enforcement officers or dies in their custody, is not the answer.

Medical examiners are not supposed to be advocates, for or against police. They aren’t expected to be lawyers or cops. They are expected to be objective scientists.

Some people just don’t want to count on law enforcement agencies to investigate one another’s actions in such cases, especially if friends or loved ones have been victims of police-involved shootings. And especially if a probe concludes that the actions were justified.

That’s understandable, which is why we applauded creation of an independent police ombudsman in Spokane.

Granted, that ombudsman, Tim Burns, has said he thinks inquests make sense. But the two people who share the medical examiner responsibility in Spokane County, Drs. Sally Aiken and John Howard, don’t think inquests are appropriate very often, if at all. Criminal investigators have other, better tools, they say.

It’s their field, and we respect their expert opinions.

Aiken and Howard, after all, are medical professionals. They are scientists. They are what voters had in mind in 1996 when they voted by more than a 4-to-1 margin to approve an appointed medical examiner instead of an elected coroner and all the embarrassments that structure had produced.

It was the right move if you want a system governed by science rather than CSI-style drama and ego. Or, as then-Sheriff Larry Erickson put it, “We don’t need a coroner who wants to be a homicide detective.”

Deaths at the hand of law enforcement authorities must not be dismissed lightly. Thorough, credible investigations are mandatory. But cases differ, and the inquest option should be reserved for those cases in which it’s appropriate.

Overuse would be costly and would yield more chest-beating than clarity.

If we want credible, independent findings, it would make more sense to strengthen the ombudsman’s authority to launch his own investigations.

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