The best way to earn the public’s trust and ease community fears is a statewide solution that serves the investigatory needs of all law-enforcement agencies.
WHEN people are killed at the hands of law enforcement, the public can and should pursue the causes. We must have confidence that investigations of such incidents are consistently fair, thorough and independent.
Last week, at a public forum regarding the police shooting of Tommy Le, King County Sheriff John Urquhart suggested that one way to ensure that trust is to have all police shootings investigated by the Washington State Patrol, an idea for which he vowed to lobby state legislators.
But outsourcing investigations to other law-enforcement agencies is not the answer. When police investigate one another, the public is often skeptical that the truth will emerge. Recent incidents like the high-level cover-up of sex crimes committed by Oakland police officers and of the shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago show that skepticism is justified.
We need to get officer-involved deaths, uses of force and serious misconduct complaint investigations out of the hands of police altogether.
Across the country, there have been diverse approaches to the problem, including within our region. The Seattle Police Department utilizes a civilian-led internal affairs department, and recent legislation created the role of a civilian inspector general to audit that work. The voters have authorized my office, the King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, to conduct independent investigations (but we cannot fulfill that mandate without first engaging in a bargaining process with police unions).
Each oversight system has its strengths and weaknesses, but in most places the public still relies on the police to conduct investigations internally. In addition, it’s mostly only large law-enforcement agencies that benefit from oversight to protect the integrity of investigations. The little guys receive neither the resources nor the attention to establish better investigatory systems, though some make efforts with interagency agreements to investigate one another.
Ultimately, the best way to earn the public’s trust and ease community fears is a statewide solution that serves the investigatory needs of all law-enforcement agencies.
The model I’d like to see developed is a civilian-led state office that investigates police shootings (as well as other uses of force and serious misconduct) for law-enforcement agencies across Washington. It would simultaneously give the public a system it can hope to believe in, help protect the integrity of these most serious investigations and relieve law enforcement agencies from the burdens of these investigations.
At last week’s meeting, Sheriff Urquhart also announced that in the case of Le, he would seek to transfer the investigation to the FBI. While that too is a gesture in the right direction, from a community-trust perspective, it may be too late. It’s not clear that the FBI will take the matter on, but even if so, the investigation is already well underway, with witnesses interviewed and evidence collected. Handing it off to the FBI at this point, when much of the investigation is already completed and the incident scene no longer available, may not ease the minds of those most impacted and concerned. Had an established, independent investigatory agency been on-call on the night of Le’s shooting, it could have managed the investigation from the onset.
While Sheriff Urquhart’s desire to create new systems for outsourcing shooting investigations is to be applauded, it’s doubtful his approach will resolve public concerns.
Our region has an opportunity to be the first to establish a statewide, civilian-led investigatory agency that can once and for all alleviate many of the objectivity problems relating to police investigating themselves. As our elected leaders consider how to improve trust between law enforcement and the public, they should start here.