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Wednesday, February 28, 2024
Feb. 28, 2024

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No guns, no uniforms: Meet WA’s new investigators of police force

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Officers in training handcuff a suspect in a mock exercise at the Criminal Justice Training Academy in Burien, Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. Guns in the holsters are fake, made of plastic. (Ellen M.
Officers in training handcuff a suspect in a mock exercise at the Criminal Justice Training Academy in Burien, Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. Guns in the holsters are fake, made of plastic. (Ellen M. Banner/The Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

BURIEN — On a recent morning, Ross Preston and Josh Dossett watched the cadets of Basic Law Enforcement Academy Class 868 practice firing their weapons. The soon-to-be officers were working on tactical reloads and close-quarters defense: Two to the chest. An oblique step. Two to the head.

Preston and Dossett stand out. For one thing, they’re older than their fellow cadets, most in their 20s. They aren’t in uniform. They aren’t armed.

They are, however, observing and learning how Washington police officers are trained, so one day — soon — they can investigate them.

Preston, Dossett and another man, Eric Pitts, are the vanguard class of investigators hired by a new statewide law enforcement agency created to examine police use of deadly force. The Office of Independent Investigations is a first-ever attempt by a state to erase — or at least diminish — the “thin blue line” controversy and conflict that arises when police are left to investigate themselves.

“I could not have asked for a better first cohort,” said OII Director Roger Rogoff, a former superior court judge and state and federal prosecutor appointed last year by Gov. Jay Inslee to lead the new agency. Advancing the first class of investigators is a notable step toward OII becoming operational, he said, although it will likely be another year before the agency actually puts boots on the ground.

“They’re smart. They’re thoughtful. They’re excited,” Rogoff said. “And we are all very cognizant of the fact that they are training and learning about being an officer, but not becoming one. That’s not what we want.

“We don’t want them to become one of the guys.”

OII is the most radical component in a series of sweeping law enforcement reforms demanded by Washington residents or passed by the state Legislature since 2018, resulting in a cascade of changes aimed at transparency, accountability and reducing deadly interactions between police and the people — especially those of color — they’re sworn to protect and serve.

Inslee has tasked Rogoff with creating from scratch an agency with citizen investigators in satellite offices statewide who will respond to uses of deadly force by any Washington police agency, as well as in-custody deaths. OII will eventually employ 80 people, including newly trained use-of-force and homicide investigators with no ties to the officers they investigate.

At this point, according to spokesperson Hector Castro, OII has about 30 employees and is moving as quickly as the state hiring process allows to sign more of the “hundreds” who have applied to work as investigators. But hiring takes time, as those applicants are held to the same hiring standards as the officers they will one day investigate, including background checks, a psychological profile and a polygraph.

The job pays between $76,200 and $107,880, Castro said.

Rogoff has hired Chris Liles, a veteran law enforcement officer and experienced homicide and death investigator, to help create a curriculum for OII investigators and integrate those teachings with the state’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy. At this point, Liles said, investigators will attend 411 of the required 720 hours required to graduate as a rookie officer.

Preston, Pitts and Dossett will complete their training this month and attend graduation with the other 30 members of their class.

“There’s no need for them to learn about writing tickets or traffic code,” Liles said. “We have tried to pick out the topics that fit what we’re doing. Self-defense. Use of force. De-escalation.”

A second class of investigators — a 42-year-old Spokane woman with experience at both the Department of Corrections and Department of Social and Health Services, and a 39-year-old Olympia man who worked as a claim investigator for the Department of Labor & Industries — began their training this past week.

Their early days on the job are designed in part by Mike Dahl, Liles’ counterpart at the Criminal Justice Training Commission, whose job it is to identify the training an OII investigator will need and see that they get it. The statute creating OII is clear that the nascent agency’s investigators are to be given priority in training, even at the exclusion of police cadets.

“They have to understand what law enforcement does before they can investigate it,” Dahl said. “We are giving them a basic foundation.”

Liles said the State Patrol and crime laboratories provide additional specialty training, teaching fledgling death investigators about evidence preservation, forensics and interviewing techniques.

When they’re finished, they’ll meet the state’s minimum standard for a homicide investigator, with training equivalent to officers on the regional independent investigation teams currently deployed when someone is killed by police or dies in custody.

Eventually, OII investigators will take over for those teams, although their personnel and expertise will still be used to assist investigations “within the parameters” of OII’s overarching authority, Rogoff said.

By next summer, Rogoff said, he hopes to open the first of what eventually will be six regional OII teams, each including six senior investigators, six investigators and a supervisor.

In the meantime, he said, the office’s senior investigators have already begun filling another OII function: reviewing past lethal police incidents where families or others have raised questions. If new evidence is presented or found, Rogoff said, the office has the authority to reopen an investigation. He said the agency is reviewing several cases, although the process is tedious and involves separate teams of investigators due to legal issues.

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Preston, Dossett and Pitts, the investigators in training, started in June at the academy, where they’re friendly with cadets and mingle with instructors. But top of mind is the notion that they aren’t police — but rather are learning about policing so they can be watchdogs.

“We are ambassadors for this program as well as students,” said Preston, a 49-year-old former paralegal supervisor at the state Attorney General’s Office and 21-year U.S. Army veteran. Preston deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan with the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, where his duties included investigating “a lot of escalation of force cases.” He retired as a first sergeant.

“I’ve always wanted to be an investigator,” he said. “This is a great opportunity.”

Pitts, 38, came to Washington from Indianapolis, where he was a crime scene specialist for a regional forensic services agency, gaining expertise in evidence collection and crime-scene documentation. Pitts is also a drone pilot and served as a platoon commander in the Texas Army National Guard.

He said he finds Washington’s progressive view toward law enforcement accountability “refreshing” after his years in the Lone Star State.

“This is a unique opportunity to help restore some faith” in a criminal legal and law enforcement system that’s hurt itself by repeatedly failing to deal with “bad apple” officers, he said.

“There needs to be some separation” between investigators and officers to accomplish that, Pitts said.

The OII students are all cognizant they’re being watched, and that the impression they make at the academy and with cadets from around the state will affect their agency’s success.

“Being seen as fair and unbiased is everything,” said Dossett, at 53 the oldest OII student and the only one with direct law enforcement experience. He spent 25 years as an officer, detective, assistant chief and public information officer for Alaska’s Ketchikan Police Department before retiring five years ago.

Dahl, of the Criminal Justice Training Commission, believes Dossett’s willingness to recomplete academy training after a successful career speaks to the dedication he’s seen in all of the OII students.

“They’ve been able to fully integrate with the class,” Dahl said. “But they have not lost sight of why they are there. They are debriefed every week.”

Dossett’s inclusion in OII’s inaugural graduating class spotlights one obstacle the agency has encountered, however. It’s tough to find people interested or experienced in death investigations who have careers outside of law enforcement.

That makes it difficult to completely break the cycle of police investigating police, Rogoff acknowledged.

“It’s a very niche kind of profession,” he said. “Nobody said it was going to be easy.”

Rogoff said OII has turned away some applicants with law enforcement backgrounds — and that those with policing experience need to show they’ve applied “for the right reason.”

“We desperately care about this,” he said. “We don’t want this to be a cop shop. But at the same time, the reality is that people who have the experience have it in police agencies.”

Rogoff said OII has focused less on prior experience and more on making sure its hires enter the job with the right perspective and a clear vision of what the agency has been formed to do, including “training to understand the impacts and effect of racism in the investigation and use of an anti-racist lens to conduct their work.”

In the meantime, Rogoff said OII has begun scouting locations for its six regional offices, another time-consuming process.

“All in all, I think we’ve moved incredibly fast for what we’ve been tasked to do,” Rogoff said. “Coming up with policies and procedures has been the hardest part — that and hiring. It has to be right.”

Rogoff has spent significant time on outreach and convincing the state’s law enforcement organizations OII will be fair, unbiased and transparent for both officers and families of the victims of police violence. Aside from investigators, the office is hiring family-liaison counselors, technicians and other support personnel.

The three OII students also recognize their roles and employer are unique — and they’ve taken their expectations to heart.

“Everyone is taking their time and being diligent, making sure this is going to work,” Dossett said.

Pitts agreed: “The last thing any of us want is to go out there and mess up and hurt this program because we didn’t have everything in place.”

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