There have been many people of color harmed by police officers. While all are investigated, one of the criticisms has frequently been that the world of police is small — and true independence is a concern.
Most police agencies that are confronted with a use of force allegation will usually reach outside their own department to another department or recruit a team from other police agencies in order to try and ensure the objectivity of the investigation. You can’t have the Auburn Police Department investigating its own officers, for example, even when adding officers from several jurisdictions — the public won’t believe it is an objective investigation.
The Legislature has heard that concern. State Rep. Debra Entenman (D-Kent) introduced legislation to establish an independent investigation agency. Gov. Jay Inslee recently appointed Roger Rogoff as the first director of the new agency. Rogoff is a former judge, prosecutor and defense attorney who most recently served as a consultant to Microsoft on global security. He will be responsible for hiring a staff of 80 people and establishing training for the staff with an annual budget $24.1 million.
Rogoff was appointed after a nationwide search by an advisory board of 11 people 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 set up six regional teams similar to multi-agency teams that now investigate uses of deadly force by police. 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 expertise at the beginning. He said the plan is to create their own investigators with the goal of hiring people who don’t care if an officer is charged or not. The intent is ensuring fairness to all sides.
The program was passed by the Legislature in 2021, as was other police conduct legislation. The Legislature has also required de-escalation training along with requiring officers to intervene if necessary. Currently, four officers are facing homicide charges from incidents that occurred after I-940, a citizen initiative that changed deadly force laws and the burden of proof for prosecution of police homicides. One officer, Jeffrey Nelson, is from Auburn. Three are from Tacoma and were charged in the death of Manuel Ellis in March 2020. Aside from an Everett officer charged with manslaughter in 2009, who was acquitted, no officer has been charged with homicide or manslaughter in 40 years.
The goal is simple: truth for all concerned and particularly for the families who lose a loved one. If successful, the programs could serve as a model for other states. But success will depend on the believability of its independence.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.