There have been many people of color harmed by police officers. Although all are investigated, one criticism has often been that the world of policing is small, and true independence is a concern.
Most police agencies faced with a use-of-force allegation usually reach outside their own department to another department or recruit a team from other police agencies to try to ensure objectivity in the investigation. You can’t have the Auburn Police Department investigate its own officers, for example, even when officers from multiple jurisdictions are added; the public will not believe it is objective research.
The legislature has heard this concern. State Rep. Debra Entenman (D-Kent) introduced legislation to establish an independent investigative agency. Governor Jay Inslee recently appointed Roger Rogoff as the new agency’s first director. Rogoff is a former judge, prosecutor and defense attorney who most recently served as a global security consultant to Microsoft. He will be responsible for hiring a workforce of 80 people and establishing training for staff with an annual budget of $24.1 million.
Rogoff was appointed after a nationwide search by an 11-person advisory board that included county prosecutors, police trainers, defense attorneys, police reformers, experienced investigators and the father of a victim of police violence. It is the first program like this in the country.
Rogoff will create six regional teams similar to the multi-agency teams that now investigate police use of deadly force. The difference is that the teams will not be made up of police officers, although Rogoff acknowledged that some detectives may be needed for their experience at first. He said the plan is to create his own investigators with the goal of hiring people who don’t care if an officer is charged or not. The intention is to ensure fairness for all parties.
The program was approved by the Legislature in 2021, along with other police conduct laws. The Legislature has also required de-escalation training and required officers to intervene if necessary. Four officers are currently facing manslaughter charges for incidents that occurred after I-940, a citizen initiative that changed deadly force laws and the burden of proof for prosecuting police killings. One officer, Jeffrey Nelson, is from Auburn. Three are from Tacoma and were charged in the March 2020 death of Manuel Ellis. Aside from an Everett officer charged with involuntary manslaughter in 2009, who was acquitted, no officers have been charged with homicide or involuntary manslaughter in 40 years.
The goal is simple: the truth for all concerned and, in particular, for families who lose a loved one. If successful, the programs could serve as a model for other states. But success will depend on the credibility of its independence.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact email@example.com.