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May 22, 2015

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Where I Stand — Guest Column:

We need to overhaul coroner’s inquest system

In August, Brian Greenspun turns over his Where I Stand column to guest writers. Today’s columnist is Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie.

When the Las Vegas Sun recently extended an offer to write a guest column, I readily accepted.

As sheriff, I deal with a lot of difficult, often controversial topics that I lose sleep over; but none has plagued me the past 10 months like the coroner’s inquest process. So I thought I would dissect the topic as much for you as for myself.

In 1976, when Clark County began using a coroner’s inquest process, the idea behind it was to allow the public the opportunity to hear the facts in deadly use-of-force cases involving law enforcement.

In August 2006, the process was re-examined by a committee made up of law enforcement, the district attorney’s office, the NAACP, the ACLU and county representatives. The committee’s work resulted in the following changes: Justices of the peace were appointed to replace hearing masters, the definition of interested parties who could ask questions during proceedings was expanded and the magistrates were mandated to ask all questions submitted by audience members or the questions had to be read into the record.

In November, the inquest process, fueled by a push from a small segment of the community for greater transparency and more representation for families of the deceased, was again revisited. Over a four-week period, a nine-member panel met to discuss how to revamp the process.

Members of the community were encouraged to attend the meetings and to participate in the process. At the end of the four weeks, the committee voted. On Dec. 21, Clark County Ordinance 3920 was signed into law.

Part of that ordinance included adding an ombudsman or attorney to represent the families at inquest proceedings. From the beginning of the meetings, there was division. Unions representing officers from all of the local law enforcement agencies were vehemently against the revised system; so was the district attorney. As sheriff, I supported the idea that the changes made in 2006 needed updating. But I knew the process to change it would be an uphill battle.

Until the completion of the inquest process, officers who have been involved in fatal use-of-force incidents are either placed in positions where they have no contact with the public or are placed on paid administrative leave. There are several reasons for this. Before an officer can be returned to duty, the appropriateness of his prior actions need to be fully and completely investigated. Our responsibility further requires that we have the agreement of the coroner that the actions by the officer in taking the life of another were justified. Until that occurs the best course of action is to place that officer on paid administrative leave or a modified duty status.

As a direct result of having no inquests since November, we have 19 officers who have no contact with the public or who are on paid administrative leave. The reason the inquests have been stalled is because of a lawsuit by the Police Protective Association questioning the new ordinance’s constitutionality.

During the 2011 legislative session, Assemblyman John Hambrick sponsored Assembly Bill 320 on behalf of the Police Protective Association. This bill would have completely eliminated the coroner’s inquest process. The bill, however, failed in committee. During testimony on the bill, the county remained neutral even though a County Commission subcommittee had approved the proposed changes to the Clark County coroner’s inquest ordinance, which prompted the introduction of AB320. The county’s unwillingness to oppose AB320 eroded confidence that the new process would work effectively.

I understand both sides of the issue. Officers in the course of carrying out their sworn duty contend the new system will, in essence, put them on trial. Critics of the old inquest system claim officers were pitched softball questions by prosecutors who had no appetite to convict a cop.

But I ask those of you who watched the Trevon Cole inquest or the inquest into Erik Scott’s death to tell me that tough questions weren’t asked. There were 977 questions asked of the officers and witnesses in the Cole case and 1,530 questions were asked in the Scott case. Audience members, including defense attorneys who had nothing to do with either case, were allowed to submit questions.

I’ve always believed that when you are critical of a process, it is important to bring forth solutions to change it. I did what I thought was right in November, and I’ll do what I think is right now, and that is to support efforts to abandon the current system and come up with something else.

I am willing and able to bring a cross section of the community together to develop a process to replace the coroner’s inquest system that I believe will be transparent to both the public and the officers. I have already met with special-interest groups and members of the community who want to participate.

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