Since January 5, 2020, when a new police reform law went into effect in Washington, five community representatives have served on Tri-City police investigation teams. Each was handpicked by the chief of the involved agency.
The state Criminal Justice Training Commission (CJTC) that provided the rules for the law directs police independent investigation teams (IIT) to be “completely independent of any involved agency.”
The relationships between police chiefs and their appointed community reps might jeopardize the integrity of the investigations. But with poorly described responsibilities and no training, it’s difficult to see what difference that makes.
The CJTC’s factsheet says community representatives will participate in the selection of police investigators, be present at briefings, have access to the completed investigation files, and be provided copies of news releases and communications prior to release. Aside from the briefings, which are not defined, this only puts representatives one step ahead of the public in receiving information.
Leo Perales became the first person picked to be a community representative on an investigation. He was added to the IIT for the February 9, 2020 shooting death of Gordon Whitaker by Kennewick police. Perales said that during the Whitaker case, “I didn’t know what we were there for.” He explained that he wondered how much authority he had.
The factsheet instructs law enforcement in the state to “solicit” at least two non-law enforcement community representatives from the death’s impacted community. Franklin County law enforcement agencies only choose two for the entire county. Walla Walla County did the same thing, but chose three. Only Benton County has two from each of the law enforcement agencies within its borders.
The Observer obtained the police investigation report for the Whitaker case that included emails about the selection of the representatives. According to Kennewick Police Commander Trevor White, “We tried to hastily come into compliance with the new law.”
The “solicit” part seems to have been a sticking point with Kennewick Police Chief Hohenberg and Benton County Prosecutor Andy Miller.
In a March 2 email to Hohenberg, Miller says “You can interpret ‘solicit’ in different ways and that could include soliciting specific people to see if they would be interested. And that process could arguably be transparent as required by the rule.”
Miller suggested in a follow-up email that Benton County select two to four people, then join the other two counties in the investigation unit – Franklin and Walla Walla — in creating a roster of names.
Following that advice, area law enforcement agencies created a list of 13 names. The Observer spoke to 6 of them.
Of the 13, the two chosen by Pasco Police Chief Ken Roske have been serving simultaneously on two investigations of Pasco police. Two of the three representatives chosen by the Kennewick Police Chief have served on two investigations of Kennewick police.
Perales received an email on Feb. 11 from Hohenberg asking him to serve on the Whitaker case. Perales said that he had known the chief since he took a class from him years ago.
Hohenberg also suggested Othene Bell Wade for the Whitaker case. He then put her and Perales on the roster.
Chelsan Simpson had attended the Richland Police Department Citizen Academy and had met the Police Chief John Bruce there. A representative from the department asked if he would be willing to volunteer.
Simpson said that when he agreed to serve, he was told that he could be asked to be on an investigation in another jurisdiction. No one else indicated that they received that information.
Prosser had a slightly different process. Police Chief Pat McCullough advertised that he was looking for volunteers. People who responded received a questionnaire that they completed and returned. He then picked two representatives.
Brandi Thornbrugh of Prosser responded to McCullough because she explained, “Volunteering was one way to be involved in the community.”
Other jurisdictions have taken a similar approach. Pierce County, the Washington State Patrol, and the cities of Yelm and Shoreline have advertised for volunteers to apply to be non-law enforcement community representatives.
The appointees that The Observer spoke with lamented that they had had no training. An in-person training session planned for November by the police departments was cancelled due to COVID restrictions.
Perales believes that to protect the independence of the representatives, someone other than the chiefs — possibly the city councils — should pick appointees. He also questioned whether the police departments should be conducting the training.
Representatives sign a confidentiality agreement that’s required, but not described, by the CTJC. The document outlines penalties if representatives disclose confidential information before the “prosecutor of jurisdiction either declines to file charges or the criminal case is concluded.” They can be prosecuted for obstructing a law enforcement officer, perjury, or violation of the Criminal Records Privacy Act.
Understandably, this made Hector Cruz hesitant about answering any of The Observer’s questions because he is currently volunteering for two investigations in Pasco. All he would say was that he had been chosen to be a representative by the Pasco Police Department because he had worked with the department in the past.
Two cases that occurred before the new law went into effect have not been closed by Franklin County Prosecutor Shawn Sant. Werner Anderson died August 10, 2018 in the back of an ambulance while in Pasco police custody. A Franklin County deputy shot Dante Jones on a rural Franklin County road on November 18, 2019. If community representatives had been on those cases, they would have been unable to talk about them for months, even years.
Washington lawmakers will be considering police reform measures during the 2021 legislative session.