New investigation process for officer-involved shooting deaths launches in King County

Major changes in the way King County investigates -- officer-involved shootings.

KING COUNTY, Wash. — There's a new process for how King County investigates deadly officer-involved shootings.

County Executive Dow Constantine announced Thursday that new inquest methods are officially in place.

It comes a year and a half after Constantine halted the formal fact-finding process -- in response to mounting criticism that the old method was biased in favor of law enforcement officers.

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King County says the changes will make the process more fair.

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There will be a six-person jury as part of the inquest, but those who will oversee inquests repeatedly emphasized Thursday that  it's not a trial, but “a fact-finding mission” -- to better understand why a shooting happened, and if a "next time" can be prevented

“My message is, we heard you. You wanted a process in which you could have more faith. We listened very carefully,” Constantine said to families of people killed by law enforcement officers.

There is a new system to investigate exactly what happened in each of their cases.

“(It’s) a process designed to make sense of a confusing and tragic situation. And we think we've done a good job of that,” Constantine said.

Now three retired judges will oversee the fact-finding -- or inquest.

“We are serving as administrators. I emphasize that to say we're not judges in this role,” said Robert McBeth, a retired King County District Court judge.

“Our role is simply to make sure the process is conducted fairly and is transparent,” McBeth said.

The inquest process was put on hold after mounting criticism that the process favored law enforcement.

“For the first time families will be presented with representation in the inquest. This is critically important in leveling the playing field,” said Anita Khandelwal, the King County Director of Public Defense.

The process was put on hold at the end of 2017 -- a year in which Constantine ordered 13 inquests, including for the controversial shooting deaths of 30-year-old Charleena Lyles and 20-year-old Tommy Le.

Le was shot and killed after deputies thought he was armed with a knife -- but Le was holding a pen.

Seattle police shot and killed Lyles, a mom of four, after she called to report a burglary.

Family members of Lyles and their attorney were at the announcement about the inquest changes Thursday.

“We appreciate the changes put into place. I think we have a better inquest process than we did before,” said Corey Guilmette, attorney to family of Lyles.

But there's still concern over how long getting answers will take.

There are five inquests ordered and currently pending -- in the cases of Le, Lyles, Isaiah Obet, Damarius D. Butts and Eugene D. Nelson.

There are seven other cases with inquests recommended by the prosecutor’s office, but not even scheduled yet -- Curtis Elroy Tade, Robert J. Lightfeather, Mitchell O. Nelson, Marcelo A. Castellano, Jason Seavers, Joseph Peppan and Iosia Faletogo.

“That’s what has me concerned, that we're still going to be waiting for a really long time. And we've already waited patiently, for a really long time,” said Katrina Johnson, a first cousin of Lyles.

The new inquest process will also involve examining whether what happened in each case followed what's taught during officer training.

If policy was not followed, there is focus on change.

”Then it goes to the chief or other admin of that police agency to make the changes they need to make in order that this could be avoided in the future,” Constantine said. “If police did not follow their training and departmental policies, we need to know why not,” he said.

The inquest cannot order changes to training or policy -- just recommend it, if that's what they determine should happen.

There's no schedule yet for when the next hearing will be, but when it happens that will also be more transparent than before, with all the audio, posted online.