Friday, December 12, 2014

Right way to investigate police killings | Last Word

When it comes to investigating killings by police officers – like the ones in Ferguson and Staten Island that have provoked nationwide protests – Seattle does it right.

And it makes little difference.

As we have repeatedly experienced in Texas, killings at the hands of police are, with rare exceptions, investigated by the police forces themselves.

The results are turned over to the district attorney who presents them in secret to a grand jury.

And the grand jury almost never indicts an officer.

Grand juries were designed by the English as a check on the power of sheriffs and prosecutors.

But with their subservient place in the law enforcement establishment and their secrecy, they are not a good device for fomenting confidence in that very law enforcement establishment.

Here’s how Seattle does it better.

Every killing done at the hands of or in the custody of a peace officer goes to an “inquest” before going to a grand jury.

This is a proceeding in open court, usually within two months of the incident.

An assistant district attorney acts in the role of fact finder, not prosecutor.

He or she introduces evidence and questions witnesses.

In addition to being open to the public, there is one other key difference.

Attorneys for both the police union and the dead person’s family also get to evaluate the evidence and question witnesses.

After a proceeding that can last several days, a six-person jury retires to answer questions posed by the judge.

They usually include whether the officer had reason to believe he or someone else was in danger and whether he used unreasonable force.

The finding is advisory and need not be unanimous.

The procedure was initiated in 1982 after a series of killings by Seattle police of members of racial minorities.

As it happened, I covered the first such inquest for the Seattle Times.

I found the jury’s 4-2 vote for the officer to reflect the ambiguity of the evidence.

The system of airing the facts in public has increased public trust, Seattle officials say, and cut down on the number of lawsuits that previously were the only way to obtain detailed information.

But what they didn’t do is change the sometimes egregious behavior of some Seattle officers.

Jenny Durkan was faced with a number of high-profile police shootings shortly after she became U.S. attorney in Seattle in 2009, 27 years after the inquest system was initiated.

Many of the incidents were caught on tape.

Some showed police behavior and language that was overtly racist.

One showed an officer shooting a Native American woodcarver just 7 seconds after ordering him to drop his carving knife.

It turned out the man was hard of hearing.

Yet not only did these officers not face local prosecution but, writing in the Washington Post last week, Durkan said that after investigation she didn’t pursue civil rights cases because jurors would find the officers either feared for their safety or were following their training, either finding of which would excuse them.

Instead, Durkan led a lengthy investigation that focused not on the individual incidents, but on the behavior of the department as a whole.

This investigation developed conclusive evidence that “the Seattle Police Department had a pattern of using unconstitutional force and found troubling evidence that it acted with racial bias.”

That, she says, has led to community efforts to reform, though resistance in some quarters was strong and “years of work remain,” she said.

Texas, like the rest of the nation, would benefit from both Seattle’s transparency in investigating the individual cases, but even more from a periodic and independent hard look at the broader culture in which those cases arise.

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