Sunday, Dec. 11, 2011 | 2 a.m.
I trust the police. But I don’t trust the old coroner’s inquest system.
And if the cops and their allies don’t watch out, their efforts to gut the reformed process will destroy confidence in what is arguably the valley’s most important institution: Metro Police.
Federal Judge Phillip Pro, in a brilliantly worded and argued decision last week, handed down a document that shreds the persistent and, yes, pusillanimous claims by the cops that somehow their constitutional rights are being threatened if they are questioned vociferously after they kill someone. The police — aided and abetted by a district attorney who has been negotiating for some time to go to work for them — have been trying to eviscerate a process that was — I use this word for a reason — justifiably changed because it is demonstrably skewed in favor of a department that apparently has not ever had an unjustifiable shooting.
The cops are going to appeal Pro’s decision, and they may well win. (I talked to the police’s attorney, Josh Reisman, on “Face to Face” last week about it.)
But in so doing, they are asking for people who ordinarily support the department and believe the overwhelming majority of officers are good cops to accept that the thin blue line has erected a thick wall of obstruction. Pro’s decision comes against a backdrop of the Review-Journal’s stunning and revealing series about officer-involved shootings, one replete with vignettes that should frighten people.
This is about as serious an issue as there is for a community — the ability to believe the men and women given license to kill only kill when it is warranted and are punished severely when they it is not. But, as Pro pointed out, while police should be treated differently, they are not entitled to extra-constitutional rights regular folks do not have.
Pro’s language piercing the due process and equal protection arguments put forth by the police is compelling, reducing to rhetorical ashes the proposition that those other than their partners in crime-fighting, the district attorney’s office, should question officers during inquests. To wit:
• “The inquest is designed to be an investigatory body, not an adjudicatory or accusatory body. It does not adjudicate any legal rights. It does not recommend any particular action to any other entity, including the district attorney’s office. Whether to initiate criminal charges following an inquest remains solely within the discretion of the prosecuting authorities. The fact that officers may face reputational harms, may suffer adverse employment actions, or may become the subject of a future civil or criminal proceeding are speculative collateral consequences that do not trigger due process guarantees.”
• “The public has special interests in ensuring police officer accountability, fostering a trust relationship between police officers and the community they serve, and providing a balanced and transparent investigative process in situations where the police department is called upon to investigate its own officers. These concerns do not arise with respect to the average citizen.”
One word: Amen.
There are other issues addressed in the lawsuit and Pro’s decision about separation of powers and whether a justice of the peace is the appropriate person to preside over the inquests. But that is a relatively minor point and one that will be resolved by the state Supreme Court.
But the fundamental issue here is whether the police will be treated fairly in a process that the evidence shows has treated them much more than fairly in the past, often with the complicity of the district attorney’s office, whose prosecutors usually offer slow pitches to the cops on the stand. The context of District Attorney David Roger’s incipient hiring by the police union and his criticism of the revamped process cannot be ignored, either.
Sheriff Doug Gillespie, who was hand-picked by his predecessor, Bill Young, has impressed me. He has been remarkably accessible and forthright. Gillespie is not as outspoken as Young was and is — his tart remarks were invaluable to the R-J in that groundbreaking series.
But the sheriff also has not taken the same position on the inquest as has the police union, and I know he is concerned with Metro’s image and reputation. I am sure he realizes the continuing damage done by the police using the courts to try to overturn reasonable reforms passed by elected officials after recommendations from a task force. I hope he reiterates his position frequently and loudly.
Image may not be everything, as one Las Vegan used to say. But when it comes to a police organization, it is critical to the community’s belief in a system designed to protect and serve, not to obstruct and cover up.
If the police continue to fight against a reasonable coroner’s inquest system, they will have only themselves to blame if the community loses its faith.