Inquest system shouldn't be controlled by police

In October, an inquest will begin into the shooting death of Aaron Roberts. The inquest will determine the cause of death, the circumstances leading to the use of deadly force and whether the force was justified. It should be the occasion for an objective and independent assessment of all circumstances surrounding the death. But the current inquest system is out of date and rife with conflicts of interest. It gives too great a role to the agency responsible for the killing and too little role to the representatives of the deceased.

Police investigate fellow officers, and the prosecutor, whose daily job involves a cooperative relationship with police, conducts the "impartial" inquest. It is not surprising that the proceedings seem to favor government authorities.

An inquest is a factual proceeding before a judge, with six jurors who examine the circumstances surrounding the killing and make advisory findings as to whether the killing was justified. Police will have investigated the crime scene and interviewed witnesses (including the police officers involved) to develop information for the inquest. The local prosecuting attorney controls the actual inquest proceedings. The inquest jury's advice is sent to this prosecutor, who determines whether charges should be brought.

Using local police and prosecutors makes no sense when a local police officer has done the killing. Fairness is threatened when the investigating officers and prosecutors are from the very same department as the officer involved in the killing. Police officers, working side by side, rely on each other in very dangerous circumstances. It is understandable that even the most dedicated officer might have difficulty conducting an objective investigation of a fellow officer involved with a shooting incident.

Nor should local prosecutors handle inquests involving local police. Prosecutors by necessity work very closely with the police to investigate and prosecute violations of law. A prosecutor may be reluctant to proceed vigorously, either consciously or unconsciously, on account of this close relationship.

In one inquest involving a man shot in the back of the head by a Seattle officer, the prosecutors sided with the officer to successfully exclude the testimony of a forensic expert who claimed that the shooting did not happen as police said.

There is a further conflict because the prosecutor's office must also guard the city or county against civil liability if wrongful conduct is uncovered.

These conflicts may help explain why there is no case in memory where the King County prosecuting attorney has pressed charges against any police officer whose conduct was evaluated during an inquest — although the office has participated in more than 100 such proceedings during the past 20 years. While it may be that officers rarely use excessive force that results in death, can it credibly be argued that this has never happened?

The local government almost always retains experienced attorneys to represent the interests of the city and of all police officers involved in the inquest. The victim's family, however, is left to fend for itself, without benefit of public counsel.

In fairness, the government should provide an attorney to represent the interests of the victim's family. Attorneys representing the police officers, the relevant municipality and the deceased person's family — if it can afford counsel — are currently only permitted to participate in the inquest in a limited way. Their attorneys cannot present testimony or evidence, they cannot call witnesses, and they cannot make any opening or closing statements. Rather, they can only cross-examine the prosecutor's witnesses.

We should scrap the present inquest system and replace it with a process that gives voice to the victim and is not controlled by police and prosecutors.

First, police and prosecutors should not to be called upon to investigate their colleagues. Instead, the Washington State Patrol and the Attorney General's Office should take on the job. Second, a court-appointed attorney should be available to represent the interests of the victim's family in the proceedings. Third, an inquest should automatically be called whenever a police killing occurs, rather than waiting for a request by the prosecutor.

A useful model for change is Senate Bill 6112, currently pending in Olympia, introduced by Senate Judiciary Chairman Adam Kline, D-Seattle. Kline's measure would authorize a local jurisdiction to ask the state attorney general to investigate rather than the local prosecutor. It would also give representatives of the deceased the right to make statements, present evidence, call and cross-examine witnesses, and obtain counsel if indigent, all for the purpose of ensuring justice and fairness for the deceased.

Inquests should bring to bear our values of equal rights and due process for all. They should not give the perception of a quick exoneration of a police killing. Let's revise our inquest proceedings so that police and victims alike have probable cause to believe that the process has been fair and has led us to the truth.

Kathleen Taylor is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington.