Demand a transparent, accountable coroner’s inquest process

When will the Latino community get answers as to why so many Latinos have been killed by police officers?

In 2006, police shot (in the back) and killed 17-year-old, handcuffed Suave Lopez as he was fleeing their patrol car. In 2010, police killed five Latinos. Among these was 21-year-old Eduardo Lopez-Hernandez, who was killed when Nevada Highway Patrol troopers tased him 19 times while he was lying face-down and handcuffed. In 2011, police killed 10 Latinos, representing 56 percent of all officer-involved shooting deaths. This number includes the shooting and killing (in front of his mother, who had called for help) of 23-year-old Rafael Olivas, who was holding a knife.

The public, our Latino community and the loved ones of those killed have all been deprived of a fair and public airing of the facts behind these killings.

The Lopez case was handled under the old coroner’s inquest process, and his death was ruled justifiable. However, that inquest process was widely viewed as a one-sided kangaroo court. In 2010, it was replaced by the Clark County Commission with a reformed format. The reforms were based on multiple hearings, recommendations from a balanced panel that included the sheriff and a former Nevada Supreme Court justice, and input from the public regarding the flaws of the prior structure, which lead to an unfair presentation of facts. The new inquest process created an ombudsman to represent the public’s interest, to ask questions and review facts.

To be clear, an inquest only happens after the district attorney determines he will not proceed with any charges against the police officers. Therefore, the function of the new Inquest is to have a public airing of the facts surrounding killings by police officers. No jury, no verdict. Just answers.

Clark County’s Latino community, like those in our African-American community who have lost so many lives at the hands of our police, should not be forced to rely on the word of the appointed (or elected) district attorney as to the true facts leading to use-of-force deaths.

The Lopez-Hernandez case would have been the first to be considered under the new inquest process. This hearing has been stalled because the police officers’ union challenged the constitutionality of the new process on various grounds. However, after nearly two years, with the county spending a significant amount of our tax dollars to defend the new process, the county won. The courts ruled the new inquest process is fair and constitutional, with the exception of one minor, easy-to-fix detail: The county may not appoint justices of the peace to preside, but it may appoint hearing masters instead.

That’s where it stands today. The matter is now before the County Commission to make the simple change.

But politics are at play. The police officers’ union, the district attorney, the sheriff and the commissioners who didn’t initially support the new rules are all jockeying behind the scenes to stop what the courts refused to stop: the commencement of an inquest process that provides the public a fair and transparent presentation of facts.

This dishonest scheming is an affront to every citizen whose tax dollars were spent to defend and win approval in the courts of the new process, to every person who participated in the hearings that led to the improved process, and to our community members who still wait for answers as to why our brothers and sisters are being killed in disproportionate numbers by our police.

The entire community needs to rise up and let our elected officials know that we deserve, that we demand transparency and accountability. We want answers as to how and why so many in our community, such as Lopez-Hernandez, Olivas and others have been killed at the hands of our police. We will not be satisfied by pats on the head by the district attorney, who tells us not to worry because he will decree what the “true” facts are.

Please attend Tuesday’s County Commission meeting at 9 a.m. at the Clark County Government Center and let our commissioners know that we want them to act responsibly and make the minor technical change needed to fix the inquest process so the hearings can proceed in accordance with the changes that have already been approved and upheld after a fair, lengthy and expensive process.

Jose A. Solorio is chairman of the Latino Democratic Caucus.

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