The coroner’s inquest process is no more.
On Monday, the Clark County Commission abandoned the valley’s formal hearings on deadly police encounters in favor of a new system, to be called “police fatality reviews.”
County residents never got a chance to see a reformed inquest system work. Those changes, approved by the commission in 2011, would have made inquests more credible by allowing an ombudsman representing the family of the victim to cross-examine witnesses, including officers. Police unions sued and vowed that officers wouldn’t participate.
The Nevada Supreme Court upheld the reforms, but because of the lengthy legal battle, there have been no public hearings on police killings for two years. So commissioners played it safe Monday, adopting a process that requires almost no police involvement and can begin immediately.
The new reviews won’t take place until the district attorney has reviewed the incident and cleared officers of criminal wrongdoing. (This by itself represents progress because, prior to Steve Wolfson becoming district attorney, prosecutors didn’t review police killings at all.) A hearing master sets the date. Prosecutors call witnesses, and the victim’s family gets an ombudsman. The focus would be fact-finding in nature. There is no coroner’s jury, no finding of justified, excusable or criminal. Just testimony.
The county will hold three reviews, including one into the outrageous 2011 killing of unarmed veteran Stanley Gibson, before evaluating whether they should continue. If they aren’t effective, they should be reformed, not abandoned.
The Las Vegas police union doesn’t oppose the process, but it will advise officers against participating. That’s unfortunate. This step has the potential to help rebuild public confidence in local police and, by extension, rebuild officer morale, which is quite low, according to a recent study.
Something is better than nothing. As long as the district attorney displays independence and rigor in reviewing each death, the review hearing will serve its most important purpose: bringing the details of deadly force into the sunlight.