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New WA agency launches police hotline for use-of-force cases, but hiring still a slow go

A colorful mural reads "Justice for Manny" and a Black man smiling.
Melissa Ponder
KNKX File Photo
A mural in Tacoma painted for what would have been Manny Ellis' 34th birthday. Several high-profile police killings nationally and locally, among them Manny Ellis, were a catalyst for creating the Office of Independent Investigations.

The state’s new Office of Independent Investigations is still working to hire enough staff to start reviewing police use-of-force cases across Washington.

Those civilian-led investigations were supposed to begin in July last year. The new agency — the first of its kind in the U.S. — was created in 2021 as part of sweeping police reforms signed by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Although it is taking longer than expected to get up and running, the office recently launched a hotline that law enforcement can call around the clock to begin reporting relevant cases for potential review, in accordance with state law.

“We're getting calls and law enforcement has been pretty adept at incorporating this into the protocols,” said Hector Castro, assistant director for communications and community relations for the new office. “They're adding us as one more place to call and notify when an incident happens.”

Officials with the agency are still working to develop policies and procedures, including how to determine which cases will be investigated.

“The statute does allow us to review and investigate old cases, but there is a caveat that we need to have some new evidence provided to us to trigger that,” Castro said. “So the issue for us is to define more specifically what constitutes new evidence and what will our processes be for conducting these types of reviews or investigations.”

So far, about 15 of the 80 positions budgeted have been filled by the agency. Once the office is fully staffed, roughly half will be civilian investigators looking into cases of police wounding or killing people across Washington state. Castro said the hiring pool for those investigators includes anyone from former police officers and death investigators to attorneys and private investigators.

Other support staff will do outreach with community groups and serve as liaisons with family members of victims of police violence.

Castro said onboarding new hires has been time consuming, particularly because of the training they require. That includes teaching them how to identify and confront implicit bias, something mandated by the law that created the office.

“This is probably the first agency where I worked at, private or government, where anti-racism and discussion around anti-bias is something that takes place on a daily basis,” Castro said. “It's something we're always being cognizant of in how we operate, how we conduct ourselves, how we share information publicly.”

The racial justice protests in 2020 were a catalyst for creating the Office of Independent Investigations, as well as several high-profile police killings nationally and locally.

Among them was the death of Manny Ellis, who was killed by Tacoma police while walking home from a convenience store in South Tacoma on the night of March 3, 2020, several months before those protests erupted. Three Tacoma police officers accused of killing Ellis will be prosecuted by the state later this year for murder and manslaughter charges.

Castro said Thursday that Roger Rogoff, the office's director, and other agency leaders have been engaged in ongoing outreach with the public and law enforcement. However, they have so far been unable to meet with either Tacoma Police Chief Avery Moore or Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer. The sheriff’s department was the first agency to investigate Ellis’ death, before the state took over.

Castro said the goal is for the office to begin its independent investigations sometime this year, but there is no official timeline.

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.