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Shawn Vestal: Coroner would help clear air about police shootings

Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker has been criticized that his office takes too long to review police officer-involved shootings. He says the review time is about normal compared with other jurisdictions. (File)
Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker has been criticized that his office takes too long to review police officer-involved shootings. He says the review time is about normal compared with other jurisdictions. (File)

Seven years ago, Prosecutor Steve Tucker had an interesting idea.

Tucker was coming under criticism at the time for his office’s slow handling of its review of the Otto Zehm case. Perhaps, Tucker said then, we should conduct coroner’s inquests into cases where someone dies in confrontations with police: seat juries of citizens to review the deaths, provide a public window into the investigative process, and lay the groundwork for any decision by prosecutors about whether the police actions were lawful.

The jury would come to a nonbinding ruling about whether the officers acted appropriately, but the prosecutor’s office would retain the authority to decide whether to file charges. State law establishes a process for doing so; King County conducts coroner’s inquests in all such cases.

Tucker’s idea never went anywhere, largely because the medical examiner dismissed the value of it and would not move forward. Now, as the Spokane City Council and Tucker’s office spar over the length of time it takes his office to review cases of officer-involved shootings, perhaps it’s time to reconsider. Because what happens in the months between a police shooting and a prosecutor’s ruling makes it difficult to answer an important question: Is Tucker’s office taking too long to arrive at its determinations in police shootings?

You can’t have everyone’s noses poked into every moment of the process, of course. But how long is too long for the public to wait? With officers on paid leave or awaiting charging decisions? With the community’s need for accountability?

The City Council says Tucker’s office is moving too slowly, and has asked him to speed it up. Councilman Jon Snyder said Department of Justice officials in town recently questioned why it takes so long for these investigations to be closed, and said local police officials have expressed the same frustrations.

“Our police department has told me they submit their (investigations) and they just wait months and months and months for anything to be done,” he said.

Tucker has noted that his office has had to review a lot of shootings lately – 11 in a recent 12-month period, when a couple a year is more typical, he said. He also indicated that part of the delay is due to him having to wait on law enforcement to produce investigations. Snyder said, “I’m hearing the opposite.” Tucker did not respond to a request to quantify this matter by detailing when he received law enforcement reports in recent investigations.

But overall, the length of time between shootings and prosecutor’s decisions here does not seem to be out of line with other jurisdictions, at least based on a brief and by no means exhaustive review of similar cases around the country. Tucker said, “I think it’s pretty normal.”

Now, perhaps normal is not good. Perhaps that’s just a way of acquiescing to the mediocre – Spokane’s plague of the “good enough.” That’s the way Snyder sees it. And both he and Chief Frank Straub emphasized this week that the question is not whether Spokane’s process is faster or slower than other places, but whether it’s moving as quickly as it can while still being thorough. Whether it’s as good as it ought to be.

Straub said he’s concerned that the process can sometimes take enough time that the relevant moment, in terms of examining what happened and what might be improved, has passed in the public’s mind. Partly in response to his concerns, he said he’s going to implement concurrent internal investigations in the cases to examine questions of policy and practice.

It’s hard to dig out much of a substantive conclusion from what’s known about recent rulings. In the most recent four cases when Spokane prosecutors released their decisions, the windows between the shootings and the decisions – exonerations, all – were 11 months, eight months, five months and five months. One case remains open 11 months after the fact; one is open three months after the shooting, and one is open two months later. The most recent shooting was April 29.

In the past month, the following cases were reported in media around the country:

• In Cleveland, prosecutors cleared an officer 13 months after a shooting.

• In Mineola, New York, prosecutors cleared an officer 11 months after a shooting.

• In Coeur d’Alene, prosecutors cleared an officer 18 months after a shooting.

• In Kauai County, Hawaii, a prosecutor cleared an officer eight months after a shooting.

• In San Jose, prosecutors cleared an officer 12 months after a shooting.

Are these comparisons useful? Perhaps not. Every case is different, in terms of evidence to analyze and gray areas to ponder. But they suggest at the least that the questions of foot-dragging remain open.

Every officer-involved shooting is a matter of crucial public interest. Each should be investigated transparently and in a timely fashion. The prosecutor’s office should be scrutinized in this process just as the police; in particular, some critics argue that prosecutor’s offices are biased toward the officers in such investigations, given that they work so closely together. You get a sense of this from Tucker’s letter of response to the City Council, when he takes the time to point out irrelevantly that often the people who are shot by police are on drugs or suicidal, frontloading an assumption of their guilt.

That final point – conflict of interest – was one of the reasons Tucker supported coroner’s inquests back in the day. “I see the perception of me being so tight with law enforcement that I shouldn’t be making the decisions,” he said in 2007. That would be one benefit of the inquests; another would be opening a public window on the process and its timeliness.

I don’t know if he’s right now. But he was right then.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.