Since 1854, before Washington was a territory, inquests have been required whenever a person dies from interaction with a police officer.
That requirement is now in the state law and in the King County Charter. The process calls for a coroner’s inquest, which is a fact finding investigation overseen by a four- to eight-person jury and administered by a retired judge. Police officers frequently don’t show up for the inquest, and the questioning has been so limited that with many high profile cases of white officers shooting minorities, the families have complained that the system favors police.
Over the years, the questions police officers were asked were so limited by jurors that all an officer had to say was that he feared for his life — and the inquest would find the officer was justified in shooting the person. Families may not have the resources to hire attorneys. But on several occasions the facts seem to question the officer’s level of force that was used.
Since 2017, inquests have been on hold and 56 additional people have been shot by police. But we are now entering new territory that is long overdue. The current case involves Damarius Butts, who was shot after he and his sister were chased after stealing from a convenience store. Four different officers exchanged shots with Butts, who was hit 11 times.
In most suburban communities, the police officers have influence with the mayor and city council and with the public. When the public is asked to support adding more police officers to the force, it is usually an easy call and done by politicians who want political credit for supporting more police officers.
The process has become controversial with families who have lost loved ones, questioning both facts and transparency, but feeling like their loved one didn’t matter. King County Executive Dow Constantine was sensitive to the families and he initially made changes by executive orders, but that was challenged by the mayors of Kent, Federal Way, Auburn, Renton and the King County Sheriff’s Office as beyond the executive’s authority.
Cities won that battle, although the Butts family challenged the ruling and the State Supreme Court in a unanimous decision overruled that finding and added many of the requirements that Constantine wanted. However, many police agencies opposed the changes. Now for the first time, inquest jurors will be allowed to hear about department policies and whether the officer followed department policy. Each juror will answer 84 different questions including if any of the deaths involved “criminal means,” which would subject the officer to arrest. The new process allows for the appointment of attorneys to represent the families. Officers used to avoid answering questions by invoking their Fifth Amendment rights against self incrimination. However, the inquest administrator, an appeals judge, stated if they didn’t testify, statements compelled by the department’s investigation team would be read to the jury. All four eventually took the stand, but only after the administrator’s ruling. With the new process, it will take several months to hear 56 inquests, but the county has said they will keep them in chronological order. Only once has the evidence been strong enough not to call for a fact finding inquest. However, since the Butts incident occurred in 2017, jurors will weigh a statute in place at that time that makes it almost impossible to charge an officer with murder.
The law was changed with the passage Initiative 940 in 2018. It is not surprising that jurors ruled in the officer’s favor in the Butts case. But we are going to get a much more open process in the future and inquests will be more transparent and the police and families more confident in the decision. It may have taken five more years, but it is a better system.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.