New Washington Agency Seeks to End Practice of Police Investigating Themselves


OLYMPIA — A small cadre of officials from the state's newest agency traveled last month from Olympia to Spokane, where they explained how they intend to erase the "thin blue line" from Washington police use-of-force investigations.

Leading the group was Roger Rogoff, an even-spoken former judge and prosecutor recently appointed as the first director of the new Office of Independent Investigations, which, once fully operational, will attempt something no other U.S. state or agency has ever tried: completely removing police from the long-held and conflict-ridden practice of investigating themselves when they kill or injure someone.

The Office of Independent Investigations, or OII, represents the latest and most ambitious step in a series of law enforcement reforms demanded by Washington residents or passed by the state Legislature since 2018, resulting in a cascade of changes aimed at transparency, accountability and reducing deadly interactions between police and the citizens — especially those of color — they're sworn to protect and serve.

Gov. Jay Inslee has tasked Rogoff with creating from scratch an agency with citizen investigators in satellite offices statewide who will respond to uses of deadly force by any Washington police agency, including in-custody deaths. The OII will eventually employ 80 people, including about 40 trained use-of-force and homicide investigators with no ties to the officers they investigate.

The law requires those investigators be "trained to understand the impact and effects of racism in the investigation and use of an anti-racist lens to conduct their work."

"We will have the right of first refusal to investigate any case where deadly force is used," Rogoff said.

The OII also has been given the authority, beginning in July, to review or investigate prior deadly force cases if new information arises, giving new investigators a crucial opportunity to "get their feet wet," Rogoff said, and familiarize themselves with use-of-force case materials and methods without the pressures and distractions of an active investigation.

Once fully staffed, the office will have the authority to investigate each of Washington's roughly 225 uses of deadly police force each year, with a goal of having an OII investigator on the scene within hours, Rogoff said.

It's a huge undertaking and one that's already behind an aggressive — some say unrealistic — series of deadlines set by the Legislature when it passed House Bill 1276, the 2021 measure that established the OII.

The new law authorized the OII to begin investigating any police use of deadly force, including in-custody deaths, beginning July 1, when the agency had just a handful of employees and a director, just two months on the job, who was putting together a management team and looking for office space.

The OII found its home in a nondescript, red brick office building near the Capitol campus, where Rogoff sat at an empty cubicle one morning last month and outlined his plan to not only create a first-rate and uniquely transparent investigative agency but also win the trust of the state's 260 law-enforcement agencies and roughly 11,000 sworn officers.

Rogoff has been traveling extensively around the state, meeting with force investigators and commanders from law enforcements agencies of all sizes, laying out his vision for the OII.

"Mostly I've been listening," he said.

So far, Rogoff believes the tactic is working. So do a number of ranking law enforcement officials who are surprisingly willing to be rid of the burden of investigating one another and the skepticism and mistrust that results. Police officials who have met with Rogoff and his team have been impressed with what they've described as his methodical and thoughtful approach to a new process many officers remain wary of.

"I think most chiefs and sheriffs understand the intent of this legislation and how we got here," said Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl, who was among a group of Eastern Washington law enforcement officials that met with Rogoff and his team in October. "Nobody is denying the concerns about policing and use of force that brought us to this point."

"But I also think we as police have great concerns about what could happen, that the OII will become caught up in politics, or be used to advance a political scheme" or target or discredit officers, Meidl added. "It's a bit of a push-pull situation."

To that end, Meidl and others who have met with Rogoff said his careful and deliberate approach and his willingness to listen to all the parties involved — police, administrators, prosecutors, civil libertarians and the families of those killed by police — leave them guardedly optimistic about the agency's direction.

"The bottom-line question is, 'Will we get fair treatment?' " said Tukwila police Chief Eric Drever, who is a member of an advisory board appointed by Inslee to help pick a director and provide input to the agency on hiring, writing policy and other logistical issues.

"I just want to assure that objective and thorough investigations take place. It's not really important who conducts them. I'm excited about what I'm seeing here."

The public has grown increasingly skeptical of the objectivity and outcomes of investigations into police shootings and other deadly incidents, which until a few years ago were more often than not conducted by detectives from the same agency as the involved officers. Critics claimed conflicts of interest were routine, and officers were almost never charged with crimes — giving rise to the image of a "thin blue line" of police protecting one another.

In the past, a neighboring agency might occasionally join an investigation, intended to give the appearance of independence, but relationships between the investigators and the investigated or their colleagues almost always surfaced.

The upshot: Even when an investigation was fair and rightly justified an officer's actions, the findings were almost inevitably met by community criticism and skepticism. Police, meanwhile, did little to help their cause, often providing a skewed version of events defending the officer's actions or unfairly vilifying those they've killed or wounded.

Consider the 2017 shooting death of Des Moines teenager Mi'Chance Dunlap-Gittens during a botched King County Sheriff's Office sting operation mistakenly targeting another teenager.

For more than two years, the Sheriff's Office stood by a news release and statement that Dunlap-Gittens had drawn and fired a handgun at undercover deputies — even though detectives knew their employer's claims were untrue.

Dunlap-Gittens' parents sued and won a $2.25 million settlement, along with an apology.

Another example of investigative impropriety rose from an internal Lakewood police probe into the 2013 shooting death of Leonard Thomas by a SWAT sniper.

Mike Zaro, then an assistant chief who commanded the SWAT team that night and ordered the raid leading to Thomas' death, cleared the officers and himself of any wrongdoing in a subsequent investigation that was used by Pierce County prosecutors to decide against criminally charging any of the officers involved.

But the jury in a 2017 federal civil rights trial came to a shockingly different conclusion, finding Zaro and others under his command had acted negligently and killed Thomas in violation of his civil rights. The jury awarded a record $15 million verdict to Thomas' parents and young son, who he was holding in his arms when he was killed. The verdict included $6.5 million in punitive damages against Zaro, now the Lakewood police chief, and two other officers.

"It is hard to investigate someone who is a peer, whether it's your own department or someone else's," said Drever, the Tukwila chief. "This law will relieve some of that burden, and that's good. But you've got to be able to trust the system. So far, I like what [OII] is doing."

Rogoff said he expected pushback from police but has been pleasantly surprised by the amount of trust and participation he's seen.

"We are never going to satisfy that old crusty cop who is sure we are out to get them and that we will never be qualified," he said.

The OII's job is to determine whether a particular use of force was lawful, then present findings to the local prosecutor for their charging consideration.

"It's not our job to figure out if it's a 'good' shoot or a 'bad' shoot," Rogoff said. "What we are after is transparency and clarity. We want to know what happened."

In addition to investigators, the OII will have family liaisons and media officers, provide public outreach, and gather and publish data on Washington officers' use of deadly force.

Rogoff said his efforts revolve around the Legislature's call for transparency and trust in the investigative process. And while some lawmakers and others are critical of the pace of the nascent agency's work, Rogoff said rushing the OII into existence before it's ready would be a big mistake.

The Legislature gave the OII a budget of $28 million through this year and set an aggressive schedule that anticipated Inslee would appoint an 11-member advisory board and hire a director who would create policies and procedures, hire 80-plus staffers, train investigators, create infrastructure for conducting the investigations, and engage in outreach to the community and law enforcement — all in the first year.

Inslee appointed Rogoff in May, and the new director has so far hired 14 people, none of them investigators. He has, however, traveled the state and met with families of individuals killed by police, law enforcement administrators, investigators, city officials and prosecutors.

Rogoff said the agency is close to adopting an internal manual and key protocols that will be used to determine when and how the OII will interact with police agencies. "To me, we are moving really fast," he said.

It doesn't feel that way to Leslie Cushman, an attorney, civil rights advocate and the citizen sponsor of I-940, a predecessor reform measure passed by voters in 2018. She thinks the OII "has to jump right in" and start doing its job.

"I'm disappointed they are not up and running," said Cushman, a spokesperson for the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability. "We can't wait for them to be perfect. People are being killed and the current system is not adequate."

That system sprang from the passage of I-940, which established 17 regional "Independent Investigative Teams" of detectives from area agencies who respond to deadly force incidents.

The drawback, as seen by reformers like Cushman, is that those teams are composed entirely of law enforcement officers, perceived by critics as brothers in blue reluctant to scrutinize too closely the actions of another cop.

For the time being, Rogoff said, the regional teams will remain in place and be responsible for conducting nuts-and-bolts investigations. In the short term, the plan is to dispatch single OII investigators to review uses of force and decide whether they fit to-be-determined criteria to trigger a full OII response.

In the long term, Rogoff sees a day when OII will employ enough investigators that the regional teams will be delegated to scene security and other tasks outside the scope of the actual investigation.

That plan comes with its own problems, however. Rogoff points out there are few qualified force and homicide investigators outside of law enforcement, and the OII will almost certainly have to hire from within the police ranks to get off the ground.

"Detectives don't grow on trees," said Wenatchee police Capt. Brian Chance, who oversees the North Central Washington Special Investigations Unit, one of the regional teams that respond to police-related deaths.

Many traditional law enforcement agencies are also struggling to hire, he added, so competition for top existing investigators is strong.

Chance and the two chiefs, Spokane's Meidl and Tukwila's Drever, think Rogoff and his colleagues should take the time they need before launching their initial investigations.

"Everyone recognizes the OII is a huge undertaking," Chance said. "We are pioneering some uncharted law enforcement territory. We need to get it right."

Rogoff envisions hiring a core of seasoned former investigators with no accountability or disciplinary baggage, then having them train civilian investigators with no prior law enforcement experience. In all, the office will employ about 40 investigators assigned to six satellite offices, plus the agency's Olympia headquarters, allowing the agency to respond to police uses of force anywhere in the state within a few hours.

The new OII investigators will then undergo modified Basic Law Enforcement Academy training to become sworn officers.

They will not be armed, Rogoff said, but they will have investigatory powers and be able to execute warrants and issue subpoenas.

Fred Thomas, a retired postal worker whose son Leonard was killed by the Lakewood police sniper in 2013, co-chaired Inslee's OII advisory board and has high praise for Rogoff.

He's also forgiving of the delays so far.

"I think we got the right team in place, although it has taken longer than we thought it would," he said. "Roger has proved he's willing to listen to law enforcement — and he's proven he's not willing to always give them their way. It's also clear that he has listened to and heard the families."