By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
SEATTLE — King County Executive Dow Constantine signed an executive order on Oct. 3, making substantial reforms to the county’s inquest process for reviewing incidents involving use of deadly force by police. The changes are intended to increase accountability and transparency.
Currently, there are nine pending inquests, including the shooting death of Tommy Le — the teen was shot and killed just hours before he was scheduled to graduate from high school in June 2017.
Xuyen Le, Tommy’s aunt and spokesperson for the Le family, said in a statement that the family is pleased with the changes announced in the inquest process.
“Our many concerns and efforts, echoed by so many in King County communities, were heard and seen.” It goes on to say, “We encourage King County Executive Dow Constantine and the King County Sheriff to take the next honorable step, and replace future Sheriff ‘internal investigations’ regarding the use of deadly force, with independent investigations conducted by a neutral party. Only then, will the communities and constituents of King County be fully satisfied that truth will prevail.”
Le’s inquest and eight others will be restarted early next year, Constantine said.
Critics have argued that the current system is one-sided since families of the deceased couldn’t call their own witnesses, submit evidence, or even address the jury.
The changes — expected to be in place by March — mean the process will focus more on whether cops followed policy and training, and less on whether the officer had a reasonable fear for their life.
The executive order made the following changes:
A pool of retired judges will serve as pro tem Inquest Administrators to oversee the process. King County Superior Court will provide a courtroom as required by state law.
A staff attorney hired on a pro tem basis will assist. The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will no longer serve as a neutral facilitator. The prosecuting attorney’s office will continue to serve an administrative role, assembling the investigative files, and making the recommendation to the Executive to order an inquest, as required by County Charter.
Officials from the investigating agency will offer testimony about the facts of the event. The King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will no longer have the power to subpoena the responsible officer, and that officer cannot be compelled to testify.
Separately, the chief law enforcement officer of the involved agency (or their designee) will testify about the department’s use of force policy and training.
RCW requires a jury of no more than six, and no less than four. Jurors will be asked to determine the facts and circumstances surrounding the death. Instead of being asked whether the officer had reason to fear for their life, jurors will now be asked to determine whether the officer’s actions complied with department training and policy.
Involved parties may call expert witnesses, such as medical examiners and ballistics experts.
Diane Narasaki, executive director of Asian Counseling and Referral Services, applauded the changes.
“I thank Executive Constantine for answering our call to action and for signing these meaningful reforms into law,” she said.
Narasaki, however, takes issue with the King County Sheriff’s Office’s Use of Force Review Board findings in August that Le’s shooting was justified.
On Oct. 4, she, along with a coalition of community groups and leaders, sent a citizen complaint to Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht.
“From the time of Tommy Le’s death, the Sheriff’s office has at best obfuscated the circumstances of his death, and at worst, misled the public about how it transpired.”
The complaint said that nowhere in the report does it indicate that Le died from bullets to the back.
“We request a review and analysis of the processes, policies, and conclusions referenced in this report by the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight,” the complaint said.
In an email to the Northwest Asian Weekly regarding the complaint, the Sheriff’s office said “We won’t be making any further comments at this time because it’s important to the Sheriff that she respond directly to the authors of the letter first, before sharing that information with the media.”
Ruth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.