Monthly Archives: January 2018

Inquests on Trial

In Washington State, police officers may soon lose their right to shoot and kill people with impunity – except in King County

On January 8, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced a moratorium on the county’s unique inquest process for fatal on-duty law enforcement shootings. The moratorium will extend until a task force, named by Constantine in December, reviews possible reforms to the process. That task force’s recommendations are due in March.

Changes in how King County reviews fatal police shootings are something community activists have been demanding for decades. The format of the inquest process – in which a six-person jury is led through a narrowly defined “fact-finding” series of questions, and then asked solely to decide whether the shooting was “justified” or “not justified” – is not meant to determine criminal or civil liability. But in practice, it’s virtually guaranteed to return findings that appear to exonerate law enforcement officers. Of the several hundred such shootings since King County adopted its current system in 1971 – including ten in 2017 and over 70 in the last ten years – only once has an inquest jury concluded that the shooting was “not justified.” That was the notorious 2010 killing of Native American woodcarver John T.Williams.

That one exception proves the rule: the inquest process is stacked against victims’ families and against any attempt to hold officers accountable for questionable shootings. There are a number of reasons for this trend, but two of the most basic are defense attorneys and cross-examination.

Jurors hear from witnesses, who testify under oath – but those witnesses don’t face any cross-examination. That means attorneys for the law enforcement officers involved in the shooting can coax a narrative out of the officers and any supportive witnesses (e.g., other cops) with no critical scruntiny. Jurors are left to choose between what the officers say and what anyone else might say if it’s contradictory – and in that circumstance, officers’ testimony will almost alway be given more weight.

The narrowness of the questions that witnesses receive, and that jurors must answer, doesn’t include an assessment of what might have been done differently. “I had no choice but to shoot” is an unassailable statement if jurors aren’t told that there were, in fact, other choices. And that doesn’t even get to larger questions about police training, possible patterns of past abuses by the officer, or any of a number of other possibly critical factors. The jurors simply aren’t told.

Moreover, in navigating that unusual and frustrating process, families of shooting victims are on their own. Unlike a criminal trial, in which public defenders represent defendants who can’t afford a lawyer, the county doesn’t provide an attorney for the families of police shooting victims. This means that for what may be a family’s only opportunity to get sworn testimony about what happened to their loved one, a family who has already faced that lost also has to pay for legal representation to help find out what happened. Having an attorney doesn’t mean there will be any accountability – but not being represented virtually guarantees that from a family’s standpoint, nothing useful (like testimony that can be used in a later civil case) will come out of the inquest.

Instead, an inquest jury’s finding of a “justified” shooting invariably is used in the defense against any subsequent civil case. And this is why, despite the inquest system’s having been a target of criticism for over a generation, the need to reform or replace it has gained sudden urgency. It appears likely that I-940, the De-Escalate Washington initiative that would change our state’s absurdly impossible standard for criminal prosecution of bad law enforcement shootings, will make it onto this year’s ballot for statewide voters. If it passes, it would, for the first time in modern history, make the prosecution of law enforcement killings possible in Washington State.

Except in King County.

Because in King County, if an unreformed inquest process continues to return “justified” verdicts with near-automatic precision, prosecutors have to weigh that result in deciding whether to bring charges in a controversial shooting. And even if the statewide standard for such prosecutions is relaxed, most prosecutors are unlikely to try to bring a case that has already been through a testimony and jury process that returned what police invariably characterize as an “exoneration” of their officers – even if the current inquest process was never meant to, and cannot possibly, provide that sort of a definitive judgment.

In other words, the passage of I-940 risks making prosecution of law enforcement officers easier in 38 other counties, but not in the county – ours – that accounts for by far the largest number of fatal law enforcement shootings.

In that context, what Constantine’s task force decides to recommend, and how King County Council members respond to the issue, becomes critical. And there’s no guarantee that any changes will be made at all. We’ve been here before, most recently in 2008, just before Constantine replaced Ron Sims as County Executive. Sims also appointed a task force to review possible reforms to the inquest process. That committee was unable to agree on any recommendations, and no changes were made.

This time, the five committee members publicly announced include two African-Americans – attorney Jeffrey Beaver and retired King County sheriff’s deputy Fabienne Brooks, who in 1999 became the first black woman in KCSO history to be promoted to the rank of Major; King County Superior Court Judge Dean S. Lum, who has in the past been willing to rule against the police in some criminal and civil cases; former Seattle Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) director Sam Pailca, who in six years (2001-2007) of running the civilian OPA was highly limited in her effectiveness by, among other things, the OPA’s inability to collect its own evidence or compel testimony; and Native American activist Rick Williams, who, as John T. Williams’ brother, witnessed first-hand the truly nightmarish process in that shooting’s inquest. And that was the only instance, out of hundreds, in which the process “worked.” (Those five members were charged with picking a sixth, final committee member.)

In particular, Williams’ presence on this committee will be critical. King County’s charter archaically limits membership on a County Executive-appointed committee like this one to “long time property owners and business owners,” a restriction that for this issue rules any renters – and most of the family members of the disproportionately lower-income (and non-white) victims of police violence. Williams could either provide a valuable reality check or be exploited as a token cover. Or both.

In either scenario, it’s hard to imagine Constantine’s group can generate anything more than modest proposals in only the three months they’ve been given. Most likely, they’ll confine themselves to long-planned legislation introduced in King County Council this month that would, finally, provide legal representation to families of victims. That would surely help, but it would still leave in place a format that doesn’t allow for any real examination of culpability. And even that relatively benign change faces opposition. Even before the task force had met, the county’s largest police union, the predictably reactionary Seattle Police Officers Guild, tweeted that “SPOG does not believe that the current inquest process should be changed.”

Why would it, when that process has “exonerated” officers almost without fail for nearly half a century – and
would continue to do so, whether I-940 passes or not?

[Author’s note: I’m poor, permanently disabled, and dedicated (despite financial and chronic health pressures) to reporting and commentary from and for those of us fighting for our rightful place in a city that has increasingly turned its back on many of us.

If you find my reporting and commentary valuable – and would like to see me spending more time doing this and less time stressing over how I can pay for food, rent, and medical care myself – please consider donating whatever you can to help support my work. The PayPal button is on the lower right on’s home page. Many thanks for your help! – Geov Parrish]

Dr. King and Mr. Trump

”The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have turned 89 today. He has been dead for a half century, far longer than he was alive. As his living memory fades, replaced by a feel-good “I have a dream” whitewash that ignores much of what he stood for and fought against, it’s more important than ever to recapture the true history of Dr. King – because as we live in the era of an openly racist president and his proudly racist supporters, much of what he fought against is resurfacing or still with us today.

As we lose, each year, more of the people who personally witnessed King’s career, his impact is also being steadily minimalized – not just by a president who, today, became the first president since the King holiday was established to pointedly ignore it (Trump went golfing instead), but also by a White America that has little beyond the most basic notion of what King did and why, and by a new generation of black activism that draws more from the legacy of Malcolm X and especially the Black Panthers than it does from Dr. King. At this point, the King history is in danger of being reduced to a context-free ritual, its invocations of a post-racial society sounding less like a lofty vision and more like a cruel joke.

Even before Dr. King’s assassination, in the mid-’60s virtually every major city in the US saw riots. Those riots were centered in its black ghettos and frequently fueled by systemic police violence against its residents.

In 1973, only five years after King’s death, a young Donald Trump represented his father’s real estate company, Trump Management, against a sweeping Department of Justice lawsuit alleging that the Trumps systematically discriminated against blacks in renting their New York City apartments.

Another 13 years later, in 1986, an Alabama attorney named Jefferson Beauregard Sessions became only the second nominee since World War Two to have his nomination for the federal judiciary rejected – explicitly because of Sessions’ overt racism.

Now, an unrepentant Sessions, as head of the Department of Justice, has along with his Congressional allies taken sweeping measures to try to undo much of the legal framework of non-discrimination that was the signal accomplishment of the Civil Rights era. Sessions oversees, among other things, housing discrimination complaints, suppression of black voting (now done with computer-aided precision unthinkable when King fought Jim Crow), and investigations of local police brutality against non-whites in cities across the US.

Sessions was picked for that job by the same Donald Trump who inherited a local real estate empire built on discrimination, and who won the presidency in large part with explicit appeals to racism.

Just how long does that arc need to be before justice takes hold?

King’s faith-based optimism in the moral goodness of humanity may, after a half-century that has seen tremendous progress as well as widespread regression, seem quaint and naive at best, irrelevant at worst. But his moral vision is not the only reason he is remembered today, and it’s not the only lesson the history of his spectacular, all-too-brief career offers as we confront Trump’s America.

The Forgotten History

King, the man, is internationally revered on the level of Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela as last century’s most champions of nonviolence and human dignity – even though, unlike Gandhi and Mandela, he spent relatively few years in the public eye. Dr. King spent his life defying authority and convention, citing a higher moral authority, and gave hope and inspiration for the liberation of people of color on six continents. King is not a legend because he believed in diversity trainings and civic ceremonies, or because he had a nice dream. He is remembered because he took serious risks to his own life (and eventually lost it) fighting for a higher cause.

King is also remembered because, among a number of brave and committed civil rights leaders and activists, he had a flair for self-promotion, a style that also appealed to white liberals, and the extraordinary social strength of the black Southern churches behind him. And because he died before he had a chance to be widely believed a relic or buffoon.

Most importantly, King was a brilliant political tactician. He never held public office, but as a private citizen became the leader of tens of millions of Americans widely thought to have no power, showing how they could, along with white allies, exercise power effectively enough to win. He exploited divisions in his racist white opponents, pitting the die-hard segregationists against white-owned businesses crippled by economic boycotts. He gained allies in long-time segregationists like Lyndon Johnson, who was responding to King’s power politics, not his moral appeals. That’s a part of King’s legacy that’s squarely relevant today for marginalized communities of all types.

What little history TV will give us around King’s holiday this year is at least as much about forgetting as about remembering, as much about self-congratulatory patriotism that King was American as self-examination that American racism made him necessary; that government, at every level, sought to destroy him; and that the type of men who ran those governments have seized power again. We hear “I have a dream”; we don’t hear King’s powerful later indictments of poverty, the Vietnam War, and the military-industrial complex. We see Bull Connor in Birmingham; we don’t see arrests for fighting segregated housing in Chicago, or the years of beatings and busts before Dr. King won the Nobel Peace Prize. We don’t hear about the mainstream American contempt at the time for King, even after that Peace Prize, nor the FBI harassment or his reputation among conservatives as a Commie dupe.

Pop culture’s MLK has no politics, no history, and even no faith. We don’t see retrospectives on King’s linkage of civil rights with global liberation. We forget that he died in Memphis lending support for a union (the garbage workers’ strike), while organizing a multi-racial Poor Peoples’ Campaign that demanded affordable housing and decent-paying jobs as basic civil rights transcending skin color. We forget that many of King’s fellow leaders weren’t nearly so polite. Cities were burning. Selma got the movie, but Watts, Newark, and Detroit made a difference, too.

We Could Each Be Dr. King

Sixty-three years after the Montgomery bus boycott catapulted a 26-year-old King into prominence, blacks are being newly systematically disenfranchised in our elections. Affirmative action and school desegregation are dead. Urban school districts across the country are as segregated and unequal as ever. A conservative US Supreme Court has helped usher in a new era where possible redress for discrimination has been steadily whittled away.

Gifted African-Americans like Barack Obama can achieve at a level unthinkable in King’s day. But the better test of a society’s marginalization of discriminated-against groups is not how the most talented people of each group fares, but how the mediocre do. A black mediocrity like George W. Bush could still never, ever become President of the United States. A wealthy black con artist like Donald Trump would be doing hard time.

Resisting Trump requires that we acknowledge that the overt racism of Montgomery in 1955 is still a central feature of America in 2018. It shows up in our geography, in our prisons, in our schools, in our voting booths, in our shelters and food banks, in our economy, in our law enforcement, and in the very earnest and extremely white activist groups that often carry the banner on these issues.

King used the moral outrage of white Americans to force change; in a new, far more cynical century. We don’t go much for moral outrage any longer. It’d take a whole lot more than Bull Connor’s police dogs to make the news today. And social media has transformed activism – elevating the voices that are the most eloquent and incendiary, often at the expense of organizing that can change public policies (or prevent past public policy victories from being gutted).

But in 2018, we also have strengths not available to Dr. King. The forces of racism and hate notwithstanding, ours is now a far more multi-cultural society. Far more people have personal relationships with people of other races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, or classes. Appeals to abstract moral principles mean something, but injuries to people we know personally mean more. And social media’s impacts are also positive – enabling s new generation to be not only interconnected in ways unthinkable in King’s time, but able to quickly organize and to resist injustice at a scale he could never have imagined. The 1963 March On Washington took months to organize, drawing between 200,000 and 300,000 people to witness King’s most famous speech. Last January, after the newly installed president enacted a Muslim travel ban, a similar number swarmed airports across America in hours. A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin never dreamed of such possibilities.

But the saddest loss in the modern narrative of Dr. King’s career – and the aspect with the most transformative power – is the story of who he was: a man without wealth, without elected office, who managed as a single individual to change the world simply through the strength of his moral convictions. His power came from his willingness to act at enormous personal risk to do what he knew to be right. That story could inspire many millions to similar action — if only it were told. We could each be Dr. King.

MLK has become an icon, not a historical figure (distorted or otherwise). History requires context; icons don’t. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., nonviolent martyr to reconciliation and justice, has become a schlocky greeting card, a warm, fuzzy, feel-good invocation of neighborliness, a literally whitewashed file photo for sneakers or soda commercials, a reprieve for post-holiday shoppers, an excuse for a three-day weekend, a cardboard cutout used for photo ops by dissembling politicians of all colors.

His image is misused in these ways precisely because he was powerful. The movement he led and inspired gained power not just because its cause was just, but also because of the risk-taking, courage, and determination of both King and millions of other less well-known people.

How they demanded change, and won it though the exercise of power nobody thought they had, should inspire all of us. Now more than ever, their story needs to be told. As it inspires us to action, that arc might just start bending back toward justice again.