Two changes in conducting coroner’s inquest hearings for fatal officer-involved shootings are as good as nothing at all, said Gary Peck, executive director of the Nevada American Civil Liberties Union.
On Tuesday, Clark County commissioners amended the inquest procedure to require that all hearings now be conducted by a justice of the peace instead of a hearing officer. Commissioners also voted to allow questions from the family of the deceased to be read into the inquest record, outside the presence of the jury.
But what commissioners rejected was the heart of reforming the controversial inquest process, Peck said. Although commissioners Chris Giunchigliani and Lawrence Weekly supported it, a proposal to allow attorneys for family members of those killed to question witnesses in front of jurors was rejected by the majority of the commissioners.
Under the existing ordinance, family members have to submit questions in writing to the inquest’s presiding official, who can then reword or refuse to ask the question of a witness.
“The core reform that needs to take place is allowing questions by representatives of the families,” Peck said. “What they did today was completely meaningless. I think it feeds the impression, whether fairly or unfairly, that the whole system is rigged.”
Commissioner Bruce Woodbury said during the meeting that he respectfully disagreed with Peck. The changes are meaningful, Woodbury said, and are appropriate steps to maintaining integrity in the process.
“We’re never going to satisfy everyone with a point of view,” Woodbury said.
Clark County Sheriff Doug Gillespie spoke in favor of the changes made by commissioners and restated his continued support for having questions from involved families submitted in writing to the person presiding over the inquest.
Chris Collins, executive director of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association, supported what commissioners approved and emphasized that no police officer makes the decision to use a weapon lightly.
“Officers in this community do not kill indiscriminately,” Collins said.
Peck wasn’t the only one frustrated by what didn’t change in the inquest process. Attorneys E. Brent Bryson and Robert Langford, who’ve both represented families of individuals killed by police, said that it’s critical for family members to have a voice during the inquest. That role should not belong exclusively to prosecutors from the district attorney’s office, who often work closely with the officers in other cases.
“We should be allowed as a family representative to ask questions,” Bryson said. ” Not because it’s cross-examination, but just to ferret out all the facts and discrepancies between testimony. Isn’t that really completeness?”
Langford told commissioners that if they weren’t going to truly reform the process, it would be better to do away with inquests entirely. The responsibility for deciding whether to press criminal charges against the officer in a shooting fatality would then rest entirely with the district attorney and save the county the cost of the hearing.
“It’s cheaper to get rid of the whole thing if all we care about is making sure there’s a headline in tomorrow’s paper that says the officer was cleared,” Langford said.
Inquest procedures came under fire last year when a jury ruled that Metropolitan Police Department officers were justified when they shot 17-year-old murder suspect Swauve Lopez in the back as he tried to escape from custody while in handcuffs.
The county responded by assembling representatives from community groups such as the ACLU and the Las Vegas branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to work with county staff for about a year and half to reform the rules on how inquests are conducted.
“The county brought the group together,” Peck said. “And at the end of the day, the community groups were ignored and the commission accepted what the cops wanted.”
Contact reporter Lisa Kim Bach at email@example.com or (702) 383-0287.