The Inquest – A step toward justice or just a step?

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Next month, the King County District Court will hold an inquest into the August 30, 2010, fatal shooting of First Nations carver John T. Williams by Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk.  An inquest looks like a trial, so you might imagine that we will soon learn whether Officer Birk committed a crime or will be found civilly liable for killing Mr. Williams, right?  Well, probably not.  The one thing that inquest juries cannot do is to determine liability. 

Inquests are just one step in the complicated process that begins when a Seattle police officer fatally shoots someone.  While each step can add some information to the picture, the process is cumbersome and not necessarily satisfying to the public. 

The first step after a fatal shooting is the criminal investigation.  The evidence gathered during this investigation will be used throughout the criminal, civil, and disciplinary processes.  Some police departments routinely bring in an outside law enforcement agency to investigate fatal officer-involved shootings.  This is wise, because it removes any suggestion that the investigators were biased toward their fellow officer.  In the Williams case, the shooting was investigated by Seattle homicide detectives.

The next step is to present the case to the Firearms Review Board.  This board consists of several high-level Seattle police officers, plus an officer representing the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild.  A citizen observer is appointed to attend the initial presentations but is not allowed to attend the deliberations. The Board reviews the shooting to determine whether it was “justified.”  A shooting is considered “justified” if the officer followed the department’s policies and training when he used his weapon.  In the Williams case, the Seattle has reported that the Firearms Review Board preliminarily ruled the shooting was “unjustified.” 

BUT that doesn’t mean the officer will be found guilty. The board’s decision only means that the officer didn’t follow SPD policies or training.  Period.  It doesn’t declare that the officer committed a crime or would be found civilly liable or could even be fired. 

The next step will be the inquest.  An inquest looks a lot like other trials, with a judge, a jury, lawyers, witnesses, court reporter, and observers.  But it is not.  After hearing evidence about “when, where and by what means” the person died, and listening to follow-up questions from both sides, the six-person jury simply answers a series of yes-and-no questions.  The jurors will not hear evidence about the officer’s training or whether he had alternatives to firing his gun. The attorneys cannot argue their opinions of the evidence to the jury.  They cannot ask the jury to find the officer guilty or not guilty. The jury is not permitted to answer whether any person or agency is civilly or criminally liable.

In the Williams case, the prosecutor wants the inquest jury to determine whether the officer believed the person who was killed posed “an imminent threat of serious physical harm to himself or others at the times [the officer] fired his weapon.” 

The rest of the 15 questions proposed by the prosecutor focus on whether Williams was holding a knife, whether the blade was open or closed, whether the officer told Williams to drop the knife, and whether Williams “complied” with the order. 

The inquest process offers the public an interesting early view of the evidence, but the value of process is limited.  The jury cannot determine whether the officer acted reasonably or whether he had alternatives to using his weapon.  The jury cannot determine whether the department’s policies or the officer’s training was flawed.  Because of these limitations, the inquest process has been frequently criticized by surviving families and advocates, including the ACLU.

Even as the inquest in the Williams case proceeds, the family and the community will brace for the next step in the complicated process.  The King County prosecutor will decide whether to file criminal charges against the officer.  Separately, the U.S. Attorney’s office will decide whether to file a case against the officer for violating Mr. Williams’ civil rights.  And, the Williams family will decide whether to file a civil wrongful death action against the officer and the Seattle Police Department. 

After the criminal investigation is complete, the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability will investigate the shooting to determine whether the officer violated department policies and may recommend discipline.  The OPA and the OPA Auditor may also recommend policy and training changes. 

Whatever the inquest jury decides, there are many more steps before long process concludes.  Let’s hope that along the way justice is finally served and that significant changes are put in place so that an incident like this never happens again.