In 2007, the Clark County Commission tweaked the coroner's inquest process amid a push to improve the oft-criticized review of fatal police shootings.
At the time, the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada said the changes did not go far enough toward balancing what they called a one-sided process that favored police officers.
Three years later, the inquest remains a flawed process ripe for reform, said Allen Lichtenstein, general counsel for the ACLU.
"Now we're several years down the road, and obviously the system isn't fixed because we're having the same problems," he said.
In the wake of several recent high-profile police shootings that have piqued public interest in the inquest, the ACLU, community groups and public officials are again calling for a fresh look at the way Clark County reviews deaths caused by police officers.
The ACLU, citing a "growing public sentiment" for change, is planning to ask county commissioners to implement key reforms that were rejected in 2007, after a review by a committee of community groups and government officials, Lichtenstein said.
At least one commissioner supports the move.
"It is time to take another look at it," said Chris Giunchigliani, who believes the current system has fundamental flaws and supported changes rejected three years ago.
The case that has sparked new interest in inquest reform is the July shooting of Erik Scott, a former Army officer shot and killed by three Las Vegas police officers outside a Summerlin Costco store.
Witness accounts vary, but police say Scott, a medical device salesman, pulled one of two guns he legally carried when officers approached him in response to a 911 call from a Costco employee who said a man with a gun was acting erratically in the store.
The Scott inquest begins Wednesday amid an unusual level of interest among the public and policymakers, in part because of the clean-cut image of the dead man, the shooting's location in an upscale community and the Scott family's high-profile criticism of police and of the inquest process.
Commissioner Steve Sisolak, who pushed for broadcast of the Scott inquest by the county's television channel, said he will watch the inquest before deciding whether changes are needed.
"Maybe we do need to revisit it. I don't know," he said, adding that this inquest will be the first he has seen.
Informal discussions already have been taking place among community groups and elected officials about possible changes.
Sheriff Doug Gillespie said he has met with the Metropolitan Police Department's unions, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and others to discuss the inquest process. While not promoting any reform proposals, Gillespie said the process is not perfect.
"I'm not happy with it," Gillespie said, adding that he doesn't think anyone else is happy with it either.
Inquests are intended as a fact-finding process -- not a trial -- in which jurors decide whether the actions of police are justified, excusable or criminal. During the nonadversarial hearing, prosecutors from the district attorney's office question witnesses and present evidence.
Representatives of the dead person's family cannot directly question witnesses. Instead, they can submit written questions to the justice of the peace overseeing the hearing, who decides whether to ask them.
The ACLU and others believe a family representative should be allowed to question witnesses directly.
In 2007, Giunchigliani, the ACLU and others supported that change, but it was rejected by the commission amid worries that police officers would effectively cut off information by invoking their Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refusing to testify if they have to face cross-examination by a family lawyer.
Giunchigliani said a new review of the inquest probably would look at the 2007 proposals and inquest procedures used in the Seattle area, where King County allows a family representative to question witnesses and review evidence before the hearing. She said she didn't think the county needs to form another citizens committee to make recommendations, as it did three years ago.
Inquests are not as common in other states, where officer-involved deaths are more often reviewed in private by a prosecutor's office or a grand jury. Clark County District Attorney David Roger, whose deputies conduct the inquests, stressed that the public often expects inquests to be more like a criminal or civil trial than a fact-finding look into the circumstances of the shootings. They are not criminal or civil trials, he said.
"The critics of the inquest system want it to be something it's not used for," Roger said.
In cases where police officers kill someone criminally, Roger said they would be charged before an inquest.
He pointed to the cases of a Las Vegas police officer who committed a fatal drive-by shooting and a Nevada Highway Patrol trooper who killed four people when his speeding patrol car slammed into a car on Interstate 15.
Both officers were prosecuted by Roger's office and sent to prison.
Chris Collins, executive director of the Police Protective Association, the union representing 2,500 rank-and-file Las Vegas police officers, said the current inquest is as open and public as any review process anywhere. He doesn't think it needs to change.
If a family lawyer is added to the process, police officers could stop cooperating, Collins said.
"If it becomes so much like a criminal trial where officers refuse to participate, then there's no point in the process."
He blamed a "small, vocal minority" of people pushing for changes.
"Until one of our officers goes to jail for murder, that small minority won't be satisfied," Collins said.
Review-Journal reporter Lawrence Mower contributed to this report. Contact reporter Brian Haynes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0281.