When and how will the coroner’s inquest issue be resolved?

We’re still a long way from knowing how the issue will play out.
Danny Hellman

If you only read the local headlines or heard the teasers on television news reports last week, it sounded as if Nevada Supreme Court justices had just killed Clark County’s coroner’s inquest system. “Nevada court strikes down revised coroner’s inquest process,” read one newspaper. “Court rejects coroner’s inquest for officer-related inquests,” said a TV news report. The truth is, the court only called into question the part of the inquest process that allows a justice of the peace to oversee it. Fix that, and the court actually opened the door to get the inquest—fact-finding public hearings that follow a police-involved death—moving again.

That means the only real way the inquest system will die is if Clark County commissioners fail to come up with a way for someone other than a justice of the peace to hear inquests. That sounds much simpler than it really is.

Commissioners are already planning to discuss the high court’s decision during an upcoming meeting. (These discussions may or may not be held behind closed doors, we’re told.) They’ll take on two issues: what criteria should be used to select “hearing masters” for coroner’s inquests?; and, if hearing masters are seen as the way to go, will members of the police union participate?

Chris Collins, Police Protective Association executive director, answers that question with a very direct “No. The inquest has outlived its usefulness. They can reinvent it any way they want. We’re not coming to the inquest.”

About a year ago, Commissioner Steve Sisolak instigated changes in the inquest system by forming a committee to develop ways to make it more fair. The biggest change was to hire an inquest ombudsman to ask questions on behalf of the family of someone killed by police. When told the union’s stance, Sisolak said he now has another question for commissioners: If police don’t participate, and can’t be ordered to do so, “what’s the sense of doing this?”

Of course, the flip side is, if officers don’t participate, how bad might they look in the eyes of the public? And if commissioners don’t move ahead and try to keep the inquest alive, how bad will they look? In the end, a strange mix of pragmatism and politics will decide the fate of our inquest process. Politically, it might serve commissioners to figure out a way to keep them going; pragmatically, the inquests might be of little real use to the public.

The truth is, we’re still a long way—and perhaps many shootings to come—from knowing how this will all play out.

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