Gov. Jay Inslee has appointed a former federal prosecutor and King County Superior Court judge to lead the new Office of Independent Investigations, which was formed by the Washington Legislature to probe shootings by police statewide.
Roger Rogoff was recommended for the post after a national search by an advisory board of 11 people, chosen by Inslee last year, that included county prosecutors, police trainers, defense attorneys, police reformers, experienced investigators and the father of a victim of police violence.
The office is the first of its kind in the country, and Inslee believes it will be a model for other states.
Intent language passed with the measure creating the agency said the office was needed to address “an outpouring of frustration, anger, and demand for change from many members of the public over the deaths of people of color resulting from encounters with police.”
“The most recent deaths in the United States and within Washington are a call to lead our state to a new system for investigating deaths and other serious incidents involving law enforcement officers,” the measure says.
Inslee pointed to Rogoff’s varied legal career — in which he’s served as a prosecutor, judge and defense attorney — while announcing Rogoff as the office’s first director during a news conference Wednesday.
Rogoff, 53, will leave a job as a Microsoft global security consultant to head the new office, which has a biennial budget of $24.1 million and eventually will employ 80 people.
The formation of the office is in its nascent stages, and Rogoff will be responsible for setting up and managing a series of six regional teams — similar to the multiagency task forces that currently investigate police uses of deadly force — that are composed of independent investigators who will present their findings to local prosecutors.
The difference is that the teams will not be made up of police officers, although Rogoff acknowledged that some former detectives may be needed early on to bring their expertise to the office.
“We will shed that as much as possible as we go forward,” he told The Seattle Times. “We plan to produce and create our own investigators” without any ties to the agencies and officers they will investigate.
“What we want is people who don’t care if an officer is charged or not,” he said. “The appearance of fairness, for all involved, needs to happen.”
The current system involves teams of detectives from surrounding law enforcement agencies, often with ties to the involved officers’ department, raising concerns about conflicts of interest.
“We will eventually replace those teams,” Rogoff said.
It’s rare for police officers to face charges for killing people. In addition to creating the Office of Independent Investigations, the Legislature has implemented significant reforms, including mandating de-escalation, requiring officers to intervene when a colleague acts inappropriately, and changing deadly-force laws to make it easier to charge officers who act recklessly or negligently.
Four officers currently are facing homicide charges in Washington from incidents that occurred after the passage of I-940, a citizens initiative that changed police deadly-force laws. Auburn Officer Jeffrey Nelson is facing charges of second-degree murder and assault in the death of Jesse Sarey in May 2019, and Tacoma Officers Christopher Burbank, Matthew Collins and Timothy Rankine are charged in the death of Manuel Ellis in March 2020. Burbank and Collins are facing second-degree murder charges; Rankine is charged with first-degree manslaughter.
Aside from a single Everett police officer charged with manslaughter in 2009 — he was acquitted at trial — no Washington officer has been charged with homicide or manslaughter in state court in connection with a killing by police in 40 years.
In 2009, federal prosecutors indicted a Spokane officer on civil rights charges in connection with the 2006 beating death of Otto Zehm after local prosecutors declined to file criminal charges. The officer, Karl Thompson, was convicted in 2012 and sentenced to 51 months in prison.
The governor’s office, not the state attorney general, will oversee the agency, which will consist of regional teams of trained investigators who can respond to a deadly use of force within one hour to secure the scene and process evidence.
According to a release last year from Rep. Debra Entenman, the measure’s sponsor, the office’s staff “will be trained in the history of racism in policing, tribal sovereignty, implicit and explicit bias, intercultural competency, a racial equity lens, anti-racism, and undoing institutional racism.”
Leslie Cushman, an Olympia civil rights attorney and police reformer, and the citizen sponsor of I-940, said she intends to sit down with Rogoff for a frank conversation about racism and police violence.
“Our explicit desire is that this is an ethical/moral person who understands racism, is committed to anti-racism, and gets the deeply embedded framework in the criminal legal system that keeps privileged persons and whiteness centered,” Cushman tweeted.
No staff has yet been hired for the agency, and some of Rogoff’s first duties will include organizing the office and undertaking the hiring process, said agency spokesperson Hector Castro.
The law establishing the office states that it will have jurisdiction to investigate any law enforcement use of deadly force that occurs after July 1, 2022, although Inslee has identified a number of deaths that occurred since the passage of I-940 that may be reviewed by the agency.
The agency will also focus on communicating with the families and communities of people who are killed by police.
Rogoff worked as a senior deputy prosecuting attorney for King County from 1993 to 2007, when he joined the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Seattle, prosecuting both white-collar and violent crimes. He was appointed to the King County Superior Court bench in 2014 and spent six years as a judge.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified the agency of a law enforcement officer charged with manslaughter in 2009.