County executive wants cities to drop opposition to revised officer-involved shooting inquests

Kent, Auburn, Federal Way mayors say they won’t back down

The cities of Kent, Federal Way and Auburn need to drop their legal opposition to inquests of officer-involved deaths, says King County Executive Dow Constantine.

“Now is the time for action and accountability,” Constantine said in a Monday news release. “We want the governments that have filed litigation to block inquests to step aside so we can move forward and get to the truth.”

But the mayors of each city responded Monday that they plan to continue the lawsuit and want Constantine to restore an inquest process that is fair, transparent, just and legally acceptable within his authority.

“The purpose of an inquest is to provide accountability and answers,” Kent Mayor Dana Ralph said in a statement. “If we are going to be transparent with all parties, we need fair, impartial, factual investigations to occur. This isn’t something to take lightly or play games with. The county executive has pushed the envelope too far in trying to politicize a tragic situation. If a member of our community dies as a result of an interaction with law enforcement, I don’t want politics – I want answers. The only way to get those answers is from a fair investigation and process.”

Six inquests have been on hold in King County for two years, frustrating families and making it harder for witnesses to recall details, Constantine said. The Kent, Federal Way and Auburn police departments each have a inquest case on hold. One of the two Seattle police cases on hold includes the death of a Kent man.

State law authorizes, and the King County Charter mandates, the investigation of any death involving a member of law enforcement in the course of their duties.

Inquests are fact-finding hearings conducted before a six-member jury. Inquests are designed to provide transparency into law enforcement actions so the public may have all the facts established in a court of law. Inquest jurors answer a series of questions to determine the significant factual issues involved in the case, and it is not their purpose to determine whether any person or agency is civilly or criminally liable. State law requires a jury of no more than six, and no less than four.

“It is unfortunate that Executive Constantine has chosen to portray the intent of our cities in this light,” Auburn Mayor Nancy Backus said. “In truth, we believe that his executive overreach jeopardizes a full and transparent process for the public, cities and families involved and as such, we will fight its implementation.”

Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell also opposes the changes.

“We believe police accountability is more important now than ever, but the inquest process is an imperfect tool for this, and the new rules are unfair,” Ferrell said. “We believe it is unconstitutional.”

The city of Renton also is part of the suit against the new inquest format.

After a spike of such deaths in 2017, residents expressed serious concerns about the inquest process in the county and the seeming lack of transparency and accountability, according to the news release.

Sonia Joseph is among the residents who complained about the process after a inquest jury in December 2017 found a Kent police officer feared for his life when he shot her son Giovonn Joseph-McDade, 20, in June 2017. Joseph-McDade died from multiple gunshot wounds after he reportedly tried to use his vehicle to run over an officer after a short pursuit on the East Hill.

In response to the complaints, Constantine put all inquests on hold in 2018, then convened a community group to examine the process and suggest reforms. Many of those reforms were included in an Executive Order that went into effect in October 2018 but has not yet been used with all inquests still on hold because of the lawsuits.

Executive Order includes the following major changes:

Old system: District Court judge presided over hearing

New system: A pool of retired judges serves Inquest Administrators to oversee the process.

Old system: King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office facilitated the proceedings, presents evidence.

New system: Prosecuting Attorney’s Office will not participate in the hearing, but will continue administrative functions.

Old system: Limited only to facts and circumstances surrounding death.

New system: Expands the interpretation of facts and circumstances to include questions about department policy and training.

Old system: Jurors were often asked whether the officer feared for his or her life at the incident.

New system: Jurors may be asked whether officer’s actions were consistent with department training and policies. Jurors will no longer be asked whether officers feared for their lives.

Old system: County did not provide attorneys for families.

New system: Attorneys are provided by the Department of Public Defense, if wanted.

Old system: Involved officer could voluntarily testify or be subpoenaed to testify (officer maintains Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination).

New system: Lead investigator of incident will testify, and chief law enforcement officer (or designee) will answer questions about training and policy. Involved officer can voluntarily testify, but not be subpoenaed. However, if the subpoenaed officer does not testify, may not be represented by legal counsel.

Revised June 15 order: Involved officer may voluntarily testify or be subpoenaed to testify (officer maintains Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination), and officer may be represented by counsel throughout the proceeding regardless of whether they actually testify.

Constantine said the creation and issuance of the 2018 Executive Order was supported by:

• Andre Taylor, founder of Not This Time, a community organization focused on reducing fatal police shootings, changing the laws that govern the use of force and rebuilding trust between our communities and the police who are sworn to protect and serve us. His brother Che Taylor was fatally shot by Seattle Police in 2016

• Fae Brooks, co-chair of the King County Inquest Process and Review Committee and retired chief of the criminal investigations division of the King County Sheriff’s Office

• James Schrimpsher, Lodge 27 President of the Washington Fraternal Order of Police

• Diane Narasaki, executive director, Asian Counseling and Referral Services

Almost immediately, several cities including the city of Seattle, King County Sheriff, and individual Seattle police officers filed lawsuits challenging various aspects of the inquest process, Constantine said. Three families of the deceased also filed litigation.

The Obet, Lyle and Butts families’ lawsuits include several items, such as making inquests include potential criminal charges against officers, and giving attorneys the ability to subpoena officers.

The litigation by the cities of Seattle, Kent, Auburn, Federal Way and King County Sheriff’s challenge almost every aspect of the inquest system, including: police policies and training should not be part of inquests, disciplinary history of officers should not be allowed, expert testimony should be limited, and inquests should not be presided over by administrators (retired judges). The King County Sheriff contends that the King County Charter exempts it from inquests.

“The city of Kent is utilizing the proper legal channels in order to have an impartial court of law settle a significant dispute regarding the interpretation of law,” City communications manager Bailey Stober said in a statement. “It is clear to us that the county executive is politicizing and attempting to bully South County cities into dropping a suit which highlights significant legal shortcoming of his new inquest process. The process was so out of line that the city of Seattle first filed the lawsuit and was joined by the King County Sheriff, the executive’s own county law enforcement agency.”

On June 9, the Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes announced his intent to withdraw the city of Seattle from legal challenges to the inquest process.

Seeking to find compromise, Constantine this week issued a revised Executive Order to allow involved officers to be subpoenaed to testify, and to allow the officer to have an attorney present during the inquest.

King County will defer to the courts on whether inquests, after 50 years of case law stating otherwise, should now consider criminal culpability as part of the process.

“The inquest process created by my 2018 Executive Order puts new emphasis on law enforcement training and lethal use-of-force policies so that departments can be held accountable for creating better, safer ways of policing,” Constantine said.

“Today (Monday) I am revising my Executive Order to remove objections that some departments and some families raised,” Constantine said. “My new order will allow the involved officer or officers to be subpoenaed to testify, and will allow officers to be represented by counsel throughout the proceeding regardless of whether they actually testify,” he said.

The changes aren’t enough for Kent city leaders.

“Our county executive has attempted to create a system of police accountability utilizing a statutory structure created in 1854, before police departments even existed in Washington,” Stober said in a city statement. “The executive has used imagination and a false sense of authority, not granted to him by state law, to try and create oversight authority over city police departments in 38 cities, none of which he has the authority of oversee. We firmly believe in police oversight and accountability, but that should be a conversation with the community here in Kent, not made unilaterally from a politician in downtown Seattle. Kent residents know what is best for Kent. King County is the only county in Washington that systematically uses the inquest process for this purpose. Inquests in other counties are extremely rare if not ever used, and for good reason – they are not an effective tool for police oversight.”

Stober continued.

“It is absurd that the executive complains that cities are delaying the process of inquests,” Stober said. “Because of his rush to change the rules with minimal input, he has caused significant delays in the resolution of inquests. Because of the lack of thoughtfulness, it took his office almost two years to produce the rules once he decided to convene his community work group.”

Residents speak out

Taylor, founder of Not This Time, said the cities need to change their stance.

“I worked with very hard with Executive Constantine and other community partners to draft a new inquest process that was vastly superior, and focused appropriate attention on police policies and trainings in a way that was fair to everyone,” Taylor said in the statement released by Constantine. “The fact that certain cities were cowed by their police departments into filing lawsuits against the inquest shows just how far we have to go in creating a society that values and protects people of color. The political leaders of these cities have heard our protests. Now they need to act.”

Katrina Johnson, the cousin of Charleena Lyles who was fatally shot by Seattle Police in June 2017, spoke at the Kent protest march on June 11 and delivered a message to Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla shortly after he spoke about how he will listen to the protesters and the need for the department to do better.

“If Kent Police Department wants to stand in solidarity with families and black lives, I need you guys to drop the lawsuit that you have forbidding the inquest from going forward,” Johnson said. “If you guys want to stand in solidarity with black lives, I need you guys to apologize to Sonia Joseph for killing Giovann Joseph-McDade, for killing Eugene Nelson and many others lives that you guys have taken.”

Six King County victims with inquest hearings on hold

• Damarius Butts

Seattle Police Department

Date of Incident: April 20, 2017

Butts, of Kent, died from multiple gunshot wounds after a reported shootout with Seattle Police on April 20 when he fled after allegedly robbing a 7-Eleven store, 627 First Ave., in downtown Seattle.

• Isaiah Obet

Auburn Police Department

Date of Incident: June 10, 2017

Police say the officer shot Obet after the 25-year-old man entered a home armed with a knife and later tried to carjack an occupied vehicle.

• Charleena Lyles

Seattle Police Department

Date of Incident: June 18, 2017

Lyles, 30, was shot seven times in her Seattle apartment by two Seattle Police officers. Officers fired after they said Lyles threatened them with a knife.

• Eugene Nelson

Kent Police Department

Date of Incident: Aug. 9, 2017

Nelson, 20, died from multiple gunshot wounds after he allegedly tried to flee in a vehicle while dragging an officer in the 23600 block of 104th Avenue Southeast.

• Robert Lightfeather

Federal Way Police Department

Date of Incident: Oct. 30, 2017

Lightfeather, 33, died of multiple gun shot wounds from a shooting at South 316th Street and Pacific Highway South outside the Elephant Car Wash. Federal Way police responded to a 911 caller who reported seeing a man pointing a gun at two men.

• Curtis Elroy Tade

Kirkland Police Department

Date of Incident: Dec. 19, 2017

Federal Way Mirror reporter Olivia Sullivan contributed to this article.