DA, police union push bill to scrap coroner’s inquests; critics outraged

Coroner’s inquests into killings by police would be scrapped under a bill that the district attorney and local police union are trying to push through the Legislature.

Assembly Bill 320 would gut Clark County’s 40-year-old system that investigates deaths at the hands of police, a contentious process that recently was revamped to quell outrage about questionable inquest findings.

A key change, giving families appointed counsel at hearings, has irked many officers who say they will refuse to participate rather than be cross-examined. Also, the district attorney says the new system will be time consuming and costly.

After losing the battle to fend off reforms with the County Commission, the police union and district attorney are now fighting in Carson City to dissolve inquests before the first case is heard under the new rules.

If the bill passes, the district attorney would investigate the deadly incidents and determine whether to file criminal charges, which he has the power to do now.

Information from the investigations would be made public.

The bill has inflamed civil rights advocates who argue that it would scuttle a system essential for holding police accountable in taking a human life.

Proponents of the legislation contend that inquests have strayed too far from the original intent of finding facts and have become adversarial, making officers not want to take part.

Introduced by Assemblyman John Hambrick, R-Las Vegas, the bill is in an early stage, with an uncertain fate.

The first hearing on the bill was held by the Assembly Government Affairs Committee on Monday. It will resume Thursday to gather more testimony.

The bill must make it out of its first committee by Friday, or it will be declared dead for the session.

ACLU CRITICIZES BILL

Scrapping the inquests would turn the clock back decades and waste the work of advisory panels who spent many hours hammering out ways to bolster the public’s trust, said Maggie McLetchie, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada.

"I think it’s inappropriate for the Legislature to circumvent the will of the people of Clark County," McLetchie said. "We haven’t even had a chance to see how the new system works. All the important rights we fought for … would be gone."

County commissioners approved reforms in January, such as allowing families representation at inquests, disclosing investigative files before hearings and eliminating jury verdicts.

But the first case using the new guidelines won’t be heard for at least a month.

That probably will be the case of Eduardo Lopez-Hernandez, who died last year after Nevada Highway Patrol officers stunned him with electronic devices.

A local police union leader insists he isn’t reacting just to the latest inquest overhaul, but to cumulative changes over the years.

"We’ve always believed the inquest process was not necessary," said Chris Collins, head of the Las Vegas Police Protective Association. "We lived with it, tolerated it. There are remedies to get to what you want without inquests."

The district attorney can look into a police killing and determine whether the officer did anything wrong, Collins said.

If the family is dissatisfied with the outcome and wants to delve deeper, it can file a lawsuit, he said.

Collins said no other county in the state has inquests, and few places in the nation do. He argued that local police should not be treated differently here than anywhere else.

But Richard Boulware, a local NAACP vice president, said Collins was mistaken.

Most local governments in the country have independent boards, prosecutors or task forces that investigate police killings. They are just not called inquests, he said.

"The officers don’t understand that the community wants them to be held accountable for taking the life of an individual," Boulware said, adding that "very, very disturbing incidents" spurred reforms.

CASES THAT SPARKED REFORM

Commissioners formed an advisory panel last year to suggest changes in the system after inquest juries found officers justified in two contentious cases: those of Trevon Cole and Erik Scott.

Cole, 21, a small-time marijuana dealer, was shot and killed by Las Vegas police while unarmed in his apartment.

Scott, 38, a medical device salesman and West Point graduate, was killed outside a Costco in Summerlin by officers who said he drew a gun.

Collins, McLetchie and Boulware were among those on the panel.

About five years ago, police fatally shot 17-year-old murder suspect Swuave Lopez in the back while he was handcuffed and fleeing. An inquest jury found the shooting justified, spurring an outcry that led to the first inquest review panel being formed in 2006.

District Attorney David Roger said he disagreed with how the inquest system has been reshaped. The new procedures will make inquests more time-consuming and more expensive, Roger said.

Supplying the requisite two attorneys for each hearing will cost more than $100,000 yearly, he estimated. "I just don’t have the resources."

Commissioner Steve Sisolak initiated the most reforms and later opposed giving suspects’ families representation at inquests. Sisolak said he understood why police officers would be disenchanted.

"I see their side to it," Sisolak said. "I wish there could’ve been a common ground reached."

But Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said police should welcome more scrutiny to avoid the perception of secretive dealings behind closed doors.

"In this age of transparency, wouldn’t they want to have more transparency?"

And if Roger wants to save money, he should quit pursuing so many death penalty cases, which has cost the county more than $20 million, she said.

Rory Reid, a former commissioner who voted for reforms, said it was unfortunate that the union "wants to do an end run around the process" just because it dislikes the changes that much of the public called for.

He doesn’t think such a complex problem should be tossed to a busy Legislature to solve.

"We spent hours and hours on this," Reid said. "I don’t see how the Legislature will have the time to devote to this, given all that’s in front of them."

Contact reporter Scott Wyland at swyland@reviewjournal.com or 702-455-4519.

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