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New WA agency now accepting requests to review cases of police deadly force

(Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Brandon Bell/Getty Images
Getty Images North America
(Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

The Washington State Office of Independent Investigations is now accepting requests to review prior cases where law enforcement officers used deadly force – the latest step in setting up the state’s newest agency.

Charged with conducting transparent and unbiased investigations into fatal incidents involving police, the agency has launched an online submission form for members of the public to submit cases for review. It will only dig into cases if there is new evidence presented.

Fred Thomas, who co-chairs the agency’s advisory board and whose son was killed by police in 2013, said the agency’s new system for handling requests is “a big step and something a lot of us have wanted for a long time.”

“Many of us believe some investigations in the past should have been handled differently, and I am glad to see that a neutral, unbiased organization is in a position to look at some of these older cases,” he said in a statement.

Gov. Jay Inslee first requested the office’s creation based on recommendations from a task force that he called for following the 2020 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer and the death of Manuel Ellis in Tacoma. Three police officers involved in the Tacoma incident are now awaiting trial over it, having pleaded not guilty to felony charges.

The office, which is the first of its kind in the country, launched in 2021 as part of a suite of police reforms passed by the Legislature.

While the agency is not yet investigating new incidents of deadly force, it has established a hotline for law enforcement agencies to report them.

The agency is run by a civilian director and an 11-person advisory board. Once fully operating, it will have 80 staff members with about half being investigators. The other positions include family and tribal liaisons and community relations staff.

Rep. Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland, chair of the House Community Safety, Justice and Reentry Committee where the bill originated, hasn’t been a part of setting up the office but said he was encouraged by the “deliberate” way the director and staff have begun the work.

“We have to get it right,” he said.

Members of the public can submit cases for review on the office’s website, but doing so does not guarantee the case will be reviewed.

Once a case is submitted, a member of the agency’s review team will determine if it identifies any new evidence. From there, a three-member team will formally review all available records for the case.

If new evidence exists and the team believes there should be a new investigation, they will submit a recommendation to the director, who will make the final decision.

Director Roger Rogoff said in a statement that the office will only look at previous investigations after “significant consideration” to determine if new evidence exists.

“When we do so, we are committed to taking a careful, methodical and unbiased approach to these reviews,” he said.

As of Tuesday, there were no submissions, but spokesperson Hector Castro said the agency has had inquiries over the past few months about possible cases it should look into. Castro said they would be reviewing those to determine which they might take up.

The Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, which pushed for a number of police reform measures in 2021, tweeted Monday that it was proud to have had a role in creating the office but that more needed to be done to hold law enforcement accountable.

“Truly independent investigations are only one part of achieving police accountability,” the group tweeted. “The next part is independent prosecution.”

The coalition said it will continue to support the creation of an Office of Independent Prosecution, a proposal that has yet to pass the Legislature.