KING COUNTY, Wash — King County has a new process for investigating deadly officer-involved shootings. The system is meant to give the victim’s families a louder voice, with less emphasis on whether officers feared for their lives in the moments before shootings.
The big change is the county is moving away from asking if an officer feared for their life and will instead ask if an officer followed their training.
Families will also have a louder voice in the process. They'll get an attorney through the public defender's office if they wish. They can also call their own witnesses and make a statement during the inquest.
The family of Charleena Lyles, who was shot and killed by Seattle police in 2017, has been waiting for an opportunity to learn more about what happened in the minutes leading up to her death.
“The longer we wait, the more trauma and things that we continue to go through. It’s painful to have to continue to wait for something that happened so long ago,” said Katrina Johnson, Lyles’ cousin.
They are among several families waiting for an inquest, a fact-finding process, meant to help the coroner understand how someone died at the hands of law enforcement. An inquest is not a trial, though it takes place in a courtroom.
Inquests have been on hold while King County works to reform a process that some families felt was unfair.
King County Executive Dow Constantine announced Thursday that the county made changes and is ready to resume the fact-finding hearings.
“My message is: we heard you. You wanted a process in which you could have more faith. We listened very carefully to the families, yes, but also to law enforcement and many others within the community to try to create a process designed to make sense of a confusing and tragic situation,” Constantine said.
“We appreciate the changes put into place,” said Corey Guilmette, an attorney for the Lyles family. “I think we have a better inquest process.”
“The point is not to put an individual officer on trial, but to make sure that we are asking the right questions and taking appropriate actions in response to the answers we receive,” Constantine said.
Five inquests have been ordered and are slated to move forward, starting with Damarius Butts, who died after police said he exchanged gunfire with officers in downtown Seattle in 2017.
The others include Charleena Lyles, Tommy Le, Isaiah Obet, and Eugene Nelson.
Another seven cases were recommended for an inquest by the prosecuting attorney’s office and are pending an order from the county executive: Curtis Elroy Tade, Robert J. Lightfeather, Mitchell O. Nelson, Marcelo A. Castellano, Jason Seavers, Joseph Peppan, and Iosia Faletogo.