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January 31, 2015

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County commission finalizes changes to coroner’s inquest process

The Clark County Commission on Monday voted to finalize changes to the process used by the county to determine facts surrounding law enforcement-related deaths.

The measure, which passed 5-2, details the process by which an ombudsperson would be selected to represent the family of the person killed by police. Commissioners Tom Collins and newly appointed Vice Chairman Steve Sisolak voted against it.

A lawyer will be selected from a pool at random to serve as the ombudsperson and will seek facts on behalf of the family and on behalf of the public during the coroner's inquest proceedings.

Lawyers who serve in the position must practice law in Nevada. Before being added to the pool to be randomly selected from, each ombudsperson must be put through a screening process, complete with oral interviews.

Both Clark County Coroner Michael Murphy and Sheriff Doug Gillespie were at Monday's meeting to answer questions and to give suggestions. The inquest process, in use for 40 years, has been scrutinized following the high-profile officer-involved killings of Erik Scott, shot in July at a Summerlin Costco, and Trevon Cole, shot in his Las Vegas apartment in June. In the wake of public outcry, commissioners have been reviewing the inquest process and held a number of public hearings at the end of last year.

Police officers and their union representatives have been opposed to the presence of an ombudsperson in the proceedings. They say the ombudsperson would make the proceedings adversarial.

Gillespie suggested that the commission require all lawyers serving as ombudspersons to have at least 10 years of experience in the field – something Commissioner Chris Giunchigliani said she feared would narrow the number of lawyers available.

The possible lack of lawyers available for the position was the reason Sisolak said he voted against the measure – although he says he’s in favor of giving the decedent’s family an ombudsperson.

The measure passed Monday indicates the ombudsperson would be paid an amount not to exceed $1,000 per day of inquest, plus $300 per day spent in preparation – an amount Sisolak noted he was unsure would entice high-paid lawyers to apply for the job.

The process also says that anyone who serves as an ombudsperson cannot have sued Metro Police for any reason two years prior to, or three years following, having served in the position of ombudsperson.

“My hope was to hold it and come back with some input from the legal community,” Sisolak said. “How many people is this going to eliminate? I’d like to get some kind of ballpark before we do this,” he said.

Collins said he didn’t think giving representation to the family was necessary because the process was already just.

“I think we give the public a very fair opportunity to attend and see what the outcome would be,” Collins said of the current inquest process.

Murphy said there are currently five or six cases pending a review by a coroner’s inquest. Each year, he said, the county typically has 10 to 12 inquests into killings by police officers.

Murphy said he hoped the process by which an ombudsperson would be selected could be amended if problems arose.

“I think this is a fluid process,” Murphy said. “We have to be somewhat adaptive as this process goes forward.”

Giunchigliani and Susan Brager, the commission’s new chairwoman, agreed. Giunchigliani said the measure needed to pass Monday before “we nickel and dime it to death.”

“We should not lose sight that this is one component of what (the police department is) trying to do,” she said.

Brager said she thought of the selection process as “ongoing.”

“We’ve not tried it,” she said. “We’re seeing where it goes.”

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