Ombudsman recommends public inquiries in deaths tied to police
Cases where people die at the hands of police officers should be examined in a public forum, Spokane Police Ombudsman Tim Burns says in his annual report.
Burns made the recommendation to hold coroner’s inquests in a report that he presented to the Spokane City Council this week. Other supporters of the idea include Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and representatives of Spokane’s Center for Justice, a public interest law firm.
Coroner inquests are quasi-judicial hearings in which the circumstances surrounding a death are publicly examined. They override privacy statutes that authorities believe bar them from discussing police-involved fatalities. Washington law allows inquests; in King County, inquests are required for all officer-involved deaths and juries help determine if the deaths were justified. The process is open to the public.
Burns said a coroner’s inquest would help bring trust to law enforcement by ensuring that incidents are thoroughly reviewed and vetted.
“It could add another layer of transparency,” he said.
But Spokane County’s two medical examiners remain opposed to the idea, arguing that it would force politics into death investigations.
Medical Examiner John Howard said coroner’s inquests, during which attorneys representing the family of the deceased can ask questions, would waste public resources.
“It’s simply putting on a public spectacle,” Howard said. “It’s kind of like having the taxpayers pay for a deposition for them to go on a fishing trip.”
Spokane Mayor David Condon said he’s interested in the idea but needs to study it more and wants to make sure it wouldn’t conflict with police oversight recently approved by voters.
Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke, who has previously questioned the idea of coroner inquests, said his position is evolving and that he is examining possible systems that could be put in place in Spokane County.
“I certainly do understand that the bar is set differently when we have a public official involved in a shooting,” he said.
Howard noted that Clark County, Nev., which includes Las Vegas, this year threw out its coroner inquest system that examined officer-involved deaths. A federal review of police practices in the county last year questioned the need for inquests.
But Maggie McLetchie, the former legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada, said that inquest system, which was based on King County’s, never took effect because of a legal challenge from a police union. Although courts upheld the ability to hold inquests, officials opted to toss the system. McLetchie was part of a commission that helped craft the law.
“All it was supposed to be about was to let people know what happened,” she said. “It never saw the light of day.”