Since 1854, when Washington was a territory, inquests have been required whenever a person dies from interaction with a police officer. That requirement is now both state law and in the King County charter.
The process requires an investigation through a coroner’s inquest, which is a fact-finding, four- to six-person jury presided over by an administrator (retired judge). King County Executive Dow Constantine appeared to agree with families who lost loved ones that the inquest system favored the police officer. And for the past three years, inquests have been held up while Constantine appointed a committee to take a closer look at possible changes to the inquest system — and went through the legal steps, and appeals, to change the process. Constantine included input from the families of those killed by police officers.
The inquest system has been under pressure for years to improve its transparency process. Families felt police officers’ words and actions had been given more weight than the person they caused to die. Usually, all the officer had to say to justify shooting the other person was that they “feared for their own life,” which may not always have been accurate.
Frequently, the family of the victim does not have assets to fight attorneys or police departments with seemingly unlimited budgets. In most suburban communities, the police have significant political leverage with mayors or city council members who always want the police to endorse them at election time.
Constantine initially filed his changes by executive order. But the cities of Federal Way, Renton, Kent and Auburn along with the King County Sheriff’s Office filed a lawsuit to stop the orders from going in to effect. The cities took the position that Constantine had exceeded his authority. Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell said at the time, “clearly the Executive overstepped his authority. I look forward to a process which will be fair to all parties.”
On July 15, 2021, in a unanimous decision by the Washington State Supreme Court ruled in a 49-page decision that Constantine did not exceed his authority. The court’s decision includes many of the changes and powers Constantine had used under his executive orders, as the new procedures had been opposed by each one of the cities and their police departments. Included in the court’s decision was items that police departments have opposed for years.
Additions include a requirement that the chief law enforcement official of each department may testify about the training that each officer received, along with an additional outside expert who would be able to testify on whether that training was sufficient.
Also, police officers could not use fear of self-incrimination as a blanket answer to dismiss further questions, but would be required to answer each question in that regard. Officers must testify, and the coroner was granted additional authority to subpoena officers if necessary.
Under the ruling, the inquest jury would need to answer the question of whether the person died from “criminal means.” That language has been included since 1854, but has not been asked of an inquest jury in at least 40 years, according to reports, which is another reason the process appeared to favor law enforcement.
Each of the cities have inquests that have been on hold for the last three years and will now start moving toward resolution along with 16 others. The rules have changed and there will be more questions asked, more training, more certainty of officers’ actions, and more use of the inquest system. Officers must now be sure of the circumstances before they use force or their weapon, and the families will finally get answers and peace from their loss.
The four mayors likely preferred the previous ruling that said the executive exceeded his authority because it protected their police departments, but all will now follow the new rules. And the politics? Constantine will get a real challenge from Sen. Joe Nguyen this fall that could have an impact on voters in Seattle and the four suburban cities, particularly since Nguyen is expected to raise questions about Constantine’s record from the left.
Police officers have retained their support in many suburban communities. By winning the court battle, Constantine has another item to use to protect his left flank from attack, which will have appeal to Seattle voters. But Constantine didn’t go through this process and the lawsuit for three years for the political gain. He correctly felt that a change was long overdue.
Watch to see who the police unions and mayors endorse, and watch the Seattle vote. Both the court and Constantine made the right decision.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.