Las Vegas Sun

January 29, 2023

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Why we should let the revamped coroner’s inquest system go forward

A month ago, the Clark County Commission voted to move forward with scheduling the backlog of inquests under the new coroner’s inquest system despite a pending lawsuit by the police union to stop inquests. That was the right decision.

The reformed coroner’s inquest process must go forward to restore the public’s shaken faith in the use of lethal force by local police.

There has not been a single inquest under the reforms adopted into law by the County Commission in December, but last month Sheriff Doug Gillespie wrote in the Las Vegas Sun that it was time to abandon the current system. The sheriff said that he was “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, along with the sheriff, was a member of a panel created last year by the County Commission that suggested the latest reforms to the coroner’s inquest process.

The recent coroner’s inquest reforms came about through a public and democratic process. The inquest reform panel held many hours of public meetings involving hearings and public comment.

Seeking to address public concern over bias and secrecy of information, the panel adopted reforms to make the inquest more open and transparent. The main reform of appointing an attorney to ask questions on behalf of the public and the deceased person’s family was approved 8 to 2.

Among the panel members who approved the reform were three community members, the county coroner, a UNLV law professor, the county public defender, a former Nevada Supreme Court justice and the sheriff. It was opposed by the police union and the district attorney. The County Commission adopted the reforms into law.

We should respect this process and have inquests under the new system before we start talking about replacing a system that has not even been tried.

The opposition to these reforms from the police union has focused on the creation of the ombudsman, who is an attorney who meets with the family and who can directly ask questions of the officers involved in the incidents. Opponents argue that this will be more “adversarial” for the officers than the old system, when only the district attorney’s office could ask questions of the officers.

The process may result in the officers being asked more pointed — and perhaps even uncomfortable — questions. After all, the intent of this reform was to address the public’s widespread concerns that the process had become biased in favor of the police.

The real question for the critics of these reforms is: Why are they opposed to difficult questions being asked of officers involved in an incident where a member of our community has died? There is no greater power the public can give to a law enforcement officer than the power to end another person’s life without judge or jury. I would hope that the death of a member of our community should never become so routine that we not ask difficult questions of those involved.

The new inquest process also does not prevent an officer from exercising his or her constitutional rights. An officer can invoke his Fifth Amendment privilege not to answer questions if he believes that such answers may incriminate him. Indeed, under the new system, officers have more rights than before the reforms since they now have the right to have their own attorney present during the inquest.

We all know that law enforcement officers have a challenging and dangerous job that involves the protection of our community. And, like everyone else in our society, police officers are entitled to the protection of the law, but also like everyone else in the society, they are not above the law. They can and should be questioned as we all can be when an untimely death occurs.

As a member of the panel that reviewed the coroner’s inquest system, I recommended these reforms because I believe in our police officers. Only an open and transparent process will allow the public to have faith in and trust its police force. Through such a process we become a stronger and safer community.

Richard F. Boulware, a criminal defense attorney, is first vice president of the Las Vegas branch of the NAACP and president of the Las Vegas affiliate of the National Bar Association, composed predominantly of black lawyers and judges.

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