Las Vegas Sun

October 17, 2017

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Coroner’s inquest of police shootings out of step

The coroner's inquest process in Clark County is a strange beast, one that officials have been trying to tame for the past six months.

A Sun review of inquest procedures followed by major police departments around the nation suggests that Clark County's system is out of step with other metropolitan police departments.

Metro is intent on doubling in size in the next few years. If the system is not revised, the department can expect a proportionate increase in the number of instances in which the public is uneasy about the vigor and fairness of inquests into fatal police shootings.

The Sun review found that across the country, a "patchwork" of techniques is used to get to the bottom of shootings involving police officers, said Joshua Marquis, vice president of the National District Attorney's Association. Most are variations on a theme where either the district attorney or a grand jury decides the facts.

Clark County's 31-year-old inquest process stands alone. The coroner calls the inquest before a jury in an open hearing. The police investigate the death. The officers involved in the death volunteer to testify. A district attorney's prosecutor questions the officers, although the deceased's family can submit questions in writing. The jury determines negligence based on the officers' explanation.

The battle over reform of the coroner's inquest has stuck on one point - whether representatives of the person killed by police can openly question the officer who pulled the trigger.

But larger questions loom: Has Las Vegas outgrown its method for figuring out what happened at a officer-involved death? Should the county scrap its inquest system entirely?

These questions are underscored by a spate of officer-involved shootings last year - 24, although not all fatal - plus another on New Year's Day. And the questions are magnified by the prospect of a police force that's doubling in size over the next few years.

In other big cities, the investigations of the police involvement in deaths vary:

Clark County's inquest is also billed as only a fact-finding procedure, although civil rights advocates, lawyers, cops and county officials all have a different understanding of what that means. It's one of the hang-ups that has crippled attempts to reform the inquest process.

The Clark County district attorney can pursue criminal charges even if an inquest jury determines the death is justifiable or excusable, although none has ever done so.

There have been 159 coroner's inquests in Clark County since 1976. In only one of those inquests did the jury find the officer was criminally negligent.

Depending on who you ask, this is evidence the system is perfectly just or utterly broken.

Critics of Clark County's inquest process say the relationship between police who are interrogated and the district attorney' s representatives who do most of the questioning is too close to guarantee a fair examination of the facts. The process amounts to a bunch of soft-ball questions that get cops off the hook, American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada Executive Director Gary Peck said, calling the current inquest system, "totally lopsided, totally skewed, totally rigged."

Modifying the inquest process so that representatives of the deceased can pose questions in open court is the centerpiece of any meaningful reform package, Peck said.

"This is about checks and balances. This is about coming up with the best coroner's inquest system possible," he said. "If we can't agree on the package, I think there may well be an argument for scrapping the whole system."

The Las Vegas Police Protective Association, a Metro officers union, counters that the decision to pull a trigger is made in a split second in a crisis situation and shouldn't be analyzed for hours and hours after the fact. What matters, it says, is what an officer believes in the moment. An inquest shouldn't be adversarial. "The system is not broken, and no changes are necessary," union Executive Director Chris Collins said.

If given a chance to interrogate police, the union fears that attorneys representing the family of the person killed will mine the inquest for fodder for a civil lawsuit.

In Seattle, the opposite is true, said Dan Satterberg, chief of staff to the King County prosecuting attorney. The more open the process is, the better citizens seem to feel about it.

"Having a hearing with full participation by all parties tends to reduce the number of civil cases later," he said. "The potential plaintiffs have seen the witnesses on the stand and heard all the testimony. There aren't as many unanswered questions later."

Allowing an attorney to ask questions of the police helps with the public perception of fairness, although it's safe to say police don't really relish the open hearing procedure.

"The police don't like it," Satterberg said. "They feel like they're on trial when they're not."

The bigger a city is, the easier it is for district attorneys to investigate police without bruising a relationship, said Marquis, who is the district attorney of Oregon's Clatsop County.

"The larger the jurisdiction, usually the less close the relationship between the police and the DA's office, because of the scope," he said.

No matter where you go, prosecutors and police have working relationships, and in the end, Marquis said, the district attorney's allegiance is only to the truth. This can be uncomfortable.

"Despite the belief that we are working hand-in-glove with the police, there is a lot of tension between prosecutors and the police," he said.

In Clark County, officer-involved shootings are often investigated by Metro's homicide unit, which shares findings with prosecutors from the district attorney's office, which uses the information to pose questions during the inquest.

This chain of investigation - police policing police for county prosecutors, infuriates advocates of inquest reform. "You have the government acting as a facilitator so that the police can present the police version," Peck said. "If you want to get at the truth, you don't do that by relying on the sound of one hand clapping."

At a session to gather public input on inquest reforms last week, Peck suggested letting the district attorney or attorney general's office handle investigations of officer-involved shootings from top to bottom, as it's done in Los Angeles.

"Let's let them decide the whole thing and avoid the theatrical dog-and-pony show," he said.

Clark County District Attorney David Roger is not commenting on proposed reformations to the inquest process, although he said his office sometimes uses its own investigators when gathering information for an inquest.

In Phoenix, the Maricopa County district attorney also relies on evidence gathered by police, although prosecutors can do independent investigation. "We prosecute police officers if it's appropriate," Special Assistant County Attorney Barnett S. Lotstein said. "Every case is handled on its own facts."

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