LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles County civilian oversight commissioners Thursday pressed the coroner to set a policy to conduct inquests into all deaths involving deputy shootings, a matter he said would not be decided until sometime after an upcoming hearing.
In November, Los Angeles County held its first inquest in more than 30 years involving the death of 18-year-old Andres Guardado, who was fatally shot by a deputy near Gardena. That inquest upheld a previous conclusion by the coroner’s office that Guardado’s death was a homicide. An inquest into the death of Fred Williams III, who was shot and killed by deputies Oct. 16 while running away from them with a handgun, is set for Jan. 28.
Medical Examiner-Coroner Jonathan Lucas told the Civilian Oversight Commission that no other inquests were planned, and he hoped that his office would have an opportunity to step back and thoughtfully consider a policy governing inquests once the Williams inquest was completed. The coroner indicated that an inquest offers little additional insight into the manner or cause of death, but he acknowledged that it addresses public calls for transparency.
“The inquest is an old, old tool, and it really predates the modern era of scientific advancement,” Lucas said, noting that as its utility came into question, the inquest was largely eliminated as a practice by most large jurisdictions. He noted that Northern California’s Contra Costa County, which has a population of roughly 1.2 million people, does hold inquests into most fatalities that involve law enforcement.
Lucas also emphasized that inquests are an inquiry into the circumstances, manner and cause of death and not meant to settle legal issues.
“It’s not a trial, it is not an adversarial process … there is no guilt or innocence that comes out of an inquest … it is not a quest to find all of the circumstances,” the coroner said.
One advantage it does offer, Lucas noted, is its public forum.
Another is that “there is something additional gained by having a narrative being spoken in sort of more regular, common language during an inquest,” Lucas said. “People may have a better understanding of the material that is already in our autopsy reports … than if they were just to read the documents … It’s in the pursuit of transparency.”
Commissioner Priscilla Ocen and others said that the open forum was critical to public trust.
“The inquests, I think, are doing a tremendous public service so that there’s more transparency, people can see that these investigations are being taken seriously at least by somebody in the county,” Ocen said. “Because there’s a question about whether the Sheriff’s Department is taking them seriously, especially when they come forward and take the Fifth (Amendment).”
Ocen and other commissioners expressed concern that multiple members of the sheriff’s department declined to answer questions during the Guardado inquest, citing advice from attorneys.
Both Lucas and a county lawyer told the commission that they were hopeful that members of the department would be more forthcoming at the Williams inquest. The coroner said the process itself was so archaic that it was a learning process for both his office and the attorneys involved, and no useful rule book existed.
“We are doing what we can to ensure that it goes a little more smoothly this time,” Lucas said.
The Guardado inquest was conducted by retired California Court of Appeals Justice Candace D. Cooper, who ultimately decided that she had enough evidence for a finding without pursuing “the Fifth Amendment issues raised during the inquest.”
Cooper will also oversee the Williams inquest next week. As for reviewing more cases in the public forum of an inquest, Lucas said it would be hard to impose a policy that was anything other than “all or none.” The biggest concern he raised about holding inquests for all deputy shootings was one of limited resources, including for the significant legal support needed to manage the hearings.
“I am certainly not opposed to doing (an inquest) in all of these cases, I just think we have to be careful about the return on investment,” Lucas said. “That’s not a pushback, it’s just one of the factors that we take into consideration.”
Commissioner Casimiro Tolentino said inquests are currently a matter of urgency and pushed for all cases to be considered, but said that the department policy could ultimately be made more selective over time. Tolentino suggested that the inquests and threat of public investigation could serve as a deterrent to deputies.
The COC, which was established to create more accountability on the part of the Sheriff’s Department, has no authority over the coroner’s office.
Lucas also updated the commission on security holds on autopsies, another topic that has raised calls for greater public transparency. Since new policies were finalized in August to comply with current state law, security holds have not resulted in delays in the release of records, the coroner said.
“The policy seems to be working,” Lucas told the COC. “We currently have zero security holds on use of force incidents” from any law enforcement agencies.
Lucas said he wanted to make clear that records are often held up by his office as they work to conclude a case, which in the case of toxicology tests can often take roughly 60 days.
“Even in the absence of … an active security hold, our department takes some time to work through a case, and during that period of time … it is our policy not to release any records,” the coroner said. “If there’s a perception or a belief that reports are not available to family members, I just want it to be clear that it may very well be because our office is still working on it.”
Since the policy was changed, Lucas said he didn’t believe that a security hold caused any further delay in the release of a report. Commissioner Sean Kennedy said that represented a major change.
“I think the perception that autopsy reports were being withheld is based on years of past abuse of the security hold process by the Sheriff’s Department, and your independence in this regard has facilitated systemic change,” Kennedy said.