Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2012 | 4:29 p.m.
After two hours of debate, county commissioners on Tuesday agreed to consider two proposals that attempt to change the coroner’s inquest, which is an airing of the facts after deadly police shootings.
One proposal includes witnesses and a cross-examination by attorneys, and another would rely heavily upon a lead homicide investigator reading from facts and witness testimony collected after a shooting.
Commissioners will debate the proposals in January.
The coroner’s inquest has been debated for years because of a perception that it leans heavily in favor of the police officer versus the family of the decedent. In response, the county established a committee that came up with several changes, including the hiring of an ombudsman to represent a decedent’s family and ask questions during an inquest.
Lawsuits by the Police Protective Association, the police union, followed.
Recently, though, the Nevada Supreme Court ruled there is nothing wrong with the inquest, except that a justice of the peace should not be overseeing it.
In response, Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani made a suggestion heard by commissioners Tuesday, to change justice of the peace to “hearing officer.”
But before that could be debated, Sheriff Doug Gillespie suggested a different approach. Having met with Commissioners Steve Sisolak and Larry Brown, Gillespie suggested the idea of eliminating from the process the police officers and everyone else who might have witnessed a shooting.
Instead, the lead homicide investigator would present the facts, then be questioned by a hearing master and an attorney about the facts of the shooting. Gone would be a “jury,” which for decades has overseen coroner’s inquests and determined in almost every case that a shooting was “justified.”
The sheriff said the plan would eliminate the adversarial nature of an inquest – and he also suggested getting rid of the name “inquest,” because by itself it suggests an adversarial process.
Giunchigliani said the sheriff’s plan was almost identical to ideas a community committee suggested more than a year ago. She argued against tweaking the process so much that “you end up with nothing of substance.”
Her plan is to heed the state Supreme Court and change “justice of the peace” to “hearing master” in the ordinance – which the county commission adopted earlier this year – and see how it works.
Then if it doesn’t work, the commission could change it further.
"We changed the name, we got rid of the findings ... and we won, using taxpayer dollars, three (court cases) on the issue of fairness and due process violations (brought up in lawsuits by the police union),” Giunchigliani said. "Now we're being asked to undo or continue tweaking something that's never been tried. ... We'll be tweaking and tweaking and tweaking and there's no substance at that point.”
After the debate, some observers said what happened in commission chambers was a demonstration of the power of the police union.
“The only real thing that’s different is that the police union objected,” said one observer, who did not wish to be named.
But Chris Collins, executive director of the Police Protective Association, said if his union had so much power, “I’d have the entire inquest go away all together.”
“We’re doing something that almost no other police officer across the country has to go through,” he said.
Collins has made it clear for months that police would not participate in the inquest as envisioned by the community panel that came up with a new framework. Even if Giunchigliani’s proposal passes in January, Collins added, police won’t show up to inquests. Instead, they will simply use a union attorney who will plead the Fifth Amendment for them as a proxy.
The sheriff’s plan left some who have worked on the process for more than a year dismayed.
“All they’ll do is take the people out of it, and that’s going to give the families closure?” said Allen Lichtenstein, attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.
Richard Boulware, of the Las Vegas chapter of the NAACP, said the sheriff’s plan was a “thwarting of the will of the people.”
“The community came up with the changes” to the inquest, Boulware said.
Several member of the public spoke at the public meeting, some of them using strong language to express their feelings toward Metro.
One resident called some of the deadly police shootings "homicides."
"I've read so much from the homicides that have happened – call them homicides – it is appalling. We need a system that works, that is accountable, that makes the sheriff accountable,” she added. “I know we have some great officers because we've all needed them. But when these types of things happen, the ... rotten ones... this is their way out, where it causes a (death) and they can get away with that."
Rhonda Gibson, widow of Stanley Gibson who was shot to death last December while surrounded by numerous Metro officers, fought back tears to speak.
"What do we have to hide?" she said.
Another man called out Metro for alleging that Gibson, who was unarmed, had tried to use his vehicle as a "battering ram." Video later showed Gibson in his car, wheels spinning but unable to move. With a high-powered rifle, an officer shot seven times, killing Gibson.
After almost an hour of public testimony, Gillespie suggested a new process:
After a police shooting that results in no charges by the District Attorney's Office, a public review would be convened to look at the shooting. The lead homicide investigator would lay out what happened before, during and after the shooting.
Then an ombudsman hired to represent the family of the deceased, as well as a hearing master, would ask questions of the investigator.
And that would be it.
"People could make conclusions on their own," Gillespie said.
The format change would make the process strictly fact-finding, which the sheriff said was the original intent of the coroner's inquest.
Sisolak suggested it be called a Public Police Fatal Review.
Commissioner Lawrence Weekly said "a lot of people are afraid" of police, especially in his district, where many of his constituents are minorities. At the same time, he said Metro officers are making big strides into bridging that disconnect by serving in various capacities in his community.
"I support Metro 100 percent, but I also support that we all have to be accountable," he said.
Collins told commissioners he supported the sheriff’s idea, but he did not support Giunchigliani’s.
"The men and woman I represent do not fear accountability, they look forward to the ability to say here's what happened; but they're not going to do it in a setting where the district attorney and ombudsman is going to question them,” he said. “They'll look like defendants in a courtroom."
District Attorney Steve Wolfson aid the sheriff's proposal was a good starting point but added his office “is going to participate in whatever process you come up with.”
Wolfson added the process might even include allowing the media to ask questions.