Charleena Lyles. John T. Williams. Manny Ellis. More than two years after thousands flooded streets across Washington to #SayTheirNames, police accountability advocates are finally seeing the state’s response to their demands for impartial investigations of cops who kill on the job.
Last week, the skeleton crew of employees staffing Washington’s new Office of Independent Investigations (OII) finally moved into their offices. The agency, while off to a slower start than initially projected, represents a first-in-the-nation victory for survivors of police violence. Once the department hires its remaining key staff members and finalizes its operating protocols, it will stand as the only statewide agency in America that investigates cops when they use deadly force, rather than allowing local departments to investigate their own.
Eventually, the OII will conduct those investigations using entirely civilian teams, ending the practice of police investigating police. The families who have lost loved ones to police violence hope the agency will lead to more killer cops facing criminal charges for that behavior, but some restrictions on the agency’s authority could thwart those hopes.
It’s Better Than Seattle’s Police Oversight System
Leslie Cushman, spokesperson for the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, a group composed of police violence survivors who lobbied the state to create the agency, said the Coalition’s focus on impartial investigations grew from their experience crafting parts of the 2017 statewide accountability initiative I-940, which passed the following year.
That initiative attempted to prevent police departments from investigating their own officers in excessive use of force cases, a practice that creates an appearance of corruption that erodes public confidence, Cushman says. Even though the I-940 regulations required police departments to tap an outside agency to handle those investigations, they frequently resorted to calling on neighboring departments, where investigators may still socialize with the cops they’re investigating.
The OII will change that dynamic…eventually. While the new agency will begin its work with teams led by former cops, the new law gives the OII five years to train an entirely civilian workforce of qualified investigators to staff its five regional teams based across the state.
The idea of well-trained civilian investigators drew opposition from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) as the bill to establish the OII wound its way through the Legislature. In a committee meeting, James McMahan, policy director for WASPC, expressed his organization’s concern that the agency would allow civilians to “conduct complex homicide investigations,” and that doing so could compromise the ability to prosecute based on those investigations.
Those concerns might be worth taking seriously if our current system of investigating killer cops regularly produced prosecutions for those deaths, but the lack of such prosecutions is the whole reason advocates lobbied to create the OII in the first place. Now that the agency exists, WASPC’s executive director Steven Strachan said in a statement that the cops “look forward” to working with the OII.
The OII is still working out the details of how it will train those investigators, but, in the near term, an experienced homicide investigator will lead all of its investigation teams.
The office will use those senior investigators with law enforcement experience to teach their civilian counterparts best practices for homicide investigations, but the training will also include material on how to approach the agency’s work with an awareness of the institutional racism of America’s police departments. Cushman said the Coalition gave the agency several recommendations for anti-racism trainings, and they will remain involved in helping the OII develop those programs.
Aside from eventually hiring civilian investigators, the OII also differs from local agencies like Seattle’s Office of Police Accountability (OPA) in its basic structure. Unlike the OPA, the statewide agency has no direct connection to any specific police department, and it purely focuses on criminal investigations. That means local police unions cannot bargain to restrict the agency’s access to cops in the aftermath of a killing, as the Seattle Police Officers Guild contract does with OPA’s investigations, or otherwise compromise the OII’s investigatory authority.
Another key innovation in the OII’s design: an internal watchdog board. On a monthly basis, this group will meet with agency director Roger Rogoff, the former King County Superior Court judge that Governor Jay Inslee picked to run the place. The board consults with the director as he designs the agency’s policies and protocols, and it has specific power to veto the hiring of former law enforcement officers.
By way of contrast, Seattle’s Community Police Commission gathers public feedback on police performance and then relays it to the OPA, but it doesn’t play a formal role within the oversight agency, nor does it have guaranteed access to its leadership.
Sonia Joseph, who got involved with the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability after a Kent police officer shot and killed her son, highlighted another important difference in how OII will operate. She’s excited about the OII hiring a victim services liaison as part of every regional team, so that other parents won’t experience the trauma she endured when she had to turn to the news to learn of developments in the investigation into her son’s death. Instead, OII’s liaisons will proactively communicate with victims’ families at each stage of the investigation.
Some Challenges to the Agency’s Authority Remain
Despite this overall “honeymoon” phase of public reception that Director Rogoff described for me in an interview at the OII’s offices, the agency does face some structural challenges.
The law that created the agency exempted police departments currently subject to federal supervision, so the OII can’t investigate Seattle Police Department officers until a federal judge ends the consent decree. Rogoff told me he’s been in contact with leadership at SPD and at Seattle’s oversight agencies to make sure they’re prepared to cooperate with OII investigations once the decree ends, as OII will immediately gain jurisdiction over SPD as soon as that happens.
The other gap in the OII’s authority is its lack of charging authority in the cases it investigates. Currently, it can only make recommendations for prosecution to local prosecutors, who may have some of the same conflicts of interest as local investigators.
Fixing that rather large issue is the next top priority for Cushman and the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability. Right now, they’re working on a bill to create a statewide Office of Independent Prosecution. That office would act as a companion agency to the OII, eliminating the conflicts of interest that Cushman blames for many police officers who use deadly force but then get off without facing criminal charges.
With both agencies in place to ensure consequences for unjustified killing on the job, Cushman said her group is optimistic that cops will change the way they view the use of deadly force.
Those advocates count Director Rogoff as an ally in that work as well. Rogoff told me he’s not particular about how the State Legislature designs the office, but having a prosecutor without ties to any specific police department is “incredibly important” to the success of his agency.
According to Lyn Idahosa, a founding member of Washington for Black Lives who is also working on the push for an independent prosecutor, having the support of agency leadership is unusual and will be a big help in lobbying efforts next session.
In a phone interview, she said that her main concern for getting an independent prosecutor bill through the State Legislature next spring is the lack of urgency. In her view, the amount of public pressure created by the 2020 protests motivated elected officials to take action to stand up the OII, but she doesn’t want it to take another tragedy to get other necessary reforms through Olympia.
In the meantime, both Rogoff and the advocates who worked for years to create the OII stressed patience as the agency works to carefully vet its inaugural hires and to build credibility among the public and police departments. In their view, having a truly independent, thorough, and impartial oversight agency for Washington’s cops will be worth the wait.