Steve Strachan and John Urquhart couldn't be more different in their perspective on how the King County Sheriff's Office should be run. Strachan insists he's the man to bring about the necessary changes, while Urquhart counters by claiming the department had mostly been on the right track before Strachan was hired more than 21 months...
With more than a half-century of law-enforcement experience between them, Steve Strachan and John Urquhart couldn’t be any more different in how they believe the King County Sheriff’s Office should be run.
Strachan, the current sheriff, and Urquhart, the department’s former longtime media-relations officer, have spent weeks blaming each other for problems inside the department highlighted by two recent consultants’ reports.
Strachan insists he’s the man to bring about the necessary changes, while Urquhart counters by claiming the department had mostly been on the right track before Strachan was hired more than 21 months ago.
Whoever wins the contentious race will have to oversee a laundry list of recommendations approved last month by the Metropolitan King County Council aimed at bolstering oversight of the Sheriff’s Office and improving how it investigates use-of force complaints against deputies. The recommendations emerged from two critical consultants’ reports.
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Central to the recommendations is improving the department’s relations with King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), a civilian-led committee created in 2006 to help oversee complaints and internal investigations filed against the Sheriff’s Office.
OLEO head Charles Gaither, a former investigator with the Los Angeles Police Department, recently warned that if oversight isn’t strengthened the Sheriff’s Office could find itself under the same federal microscope that resulted in a recent police-reform agreement between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the city of Seattle.
Both Strachan, 47, and Urquhart, 64, say they agree on increased civilian oversight of the department. But the two law-enforcement veterans can’t seem to get past accusing the other for playing a central role in the department’s perceived failings.
Strachan (pronounced “stran”) is a relative newcomer, brought in by his predecessor Sue Rahr as chief deputy in January 2011 and groomed to ultimately become sheriff. He took over when Rahr stepped down in April.
Urquhart served with the Sheriff’s Office from 1988 to 2012, first as a deputy and then as a sergeant. He is best known as the department’s longtime and highly quotable spokesman for almost 15 years, until his retirement in February.
Urquhart, in interviews, has accused Strachan of gutting the department’s internal-affairs division, shuffling paperwork around so that civilian complaints are not addressed and failing to properly investigate officer-involved shootings. He minces no words when he says Strachan is the reason he came out of retirement to run for office.
“All you need to do is look at what he’s done since he’s been there, and, more importantly, what he’s not done,” Urquhart said.
Urquhart said the department is losing credibility in the communities it patrols and appears to be heading toward federal oversight because use-of-force incidents aren’t properly investigated.
“People aren’t happy and they’re demanding change. They’re demanding a better job overseeing what their deputies do,” Urquhart said. “Seattle doesn’t have it right yet. We don’t have it right yet.”
Citing deputy discipline, Urquhart said his primary campaign goal is to “make sure we have the processes in place to maintain the trust of the community.”
As media-relations officer, Urquhart reported directly to Rahr and former Sheriff Dave Reichert, now a U.S. representative.
“Sixty percent of my job was policy adviser, kitchen Cabinet,” Urquhart said. “But I want to be clear, my opponent blames me for the situation the Sheriff’s Office is now in … I didn’t make policy. Sometimes I was listened to, sometimes I wasn’t.”
Urquhart points to the handling of a May 2009 incident in which Deputy Matthew Paul slammed Christopher Sean Harris into a wall, leaving him permanently brain-damaged, paralyzed and unable to speak. Urquhart says the department attempted to downplay the seriousness of the incident and failed to retrain Paul.
The county settled a lawsuit filed by the Harris family for $10 million.
However, at the time of the incident, Urquhart referred to it as “a tragic accident; nothing more than that,” a statement criticized by Strahan, who says it reflected the department’s attitude
Accused of bias
In addition to media relations, Urquhart worked as a field training officer, a patrol officer, a master police officer and a vice/narcotics detective. While he was a sergeant in the Southwest precinct of the Sheriff’s Office about a decade ago, he was accused of discriminating against female deputies and creating a hostile work environment.
Mary Syson, a sheriff’s deputy for more than 21 years, said Urquhart would give female deputies less-desirable assignments and voice concerns about having two women handle a patrol zone without having a male deputy on hand.
Other female deputies who complained about Urquhart used terms like “belittling,” “harassing” and “condescending” to describe his command.
Syson said she is coming forward now to let “the taxpayers and citizens know what he’s really like.”
But Urquhart says he was simply holding the deputies responsible for their job.
“This was fully investigated, and I was exonerated,” he said. “I was in the Sheriff’s Office 36 years, and I’ve never had a sustained complaint against me.”
After a four-month internal investigation, Urquhart was cleared of everything except violating performance standards by lowering morale with his management style. He got corrective counseling, according to KING-TV.
The deputies who spoke against Urquhart were gathered together by Strachan supporter and Seattle attorney Anne Bremner, who has donated to Strachan’s campaign.
Bremner was arrested by a sheriff’s deputy for drunken driving in Kenmore in June 2010. She called the deputy a “Nazi” and accused him of lying.
Bremner later pleaded guilty to DUI.
She declined to say why she was hosting the current and former deputies in her office, other than to say the story wasn’t about her.
The issue of workplace hostility in the department resurfaced in August when three veteran female detectives in the sheriff’s Sexual Assault Unit filed up to $9 million in claims against the county, alleging they were victims of rampant acts of sexual harassment and verbal abuse under three sergeants over many years.
The detectives allege they were subjected to a host of acts, ranging from crude remarks about breasts and buttocks to “yelling, screaming and spitting.”
An attorney with the firm representing the women, said the claims had nothing to do with the election and were filed to protect other women in the Sheriff’s Office.
Strachan calls Urquhart “the ultimate insider,” someone who once had an office steps from Reichert and Rahr and was considered a “trusted adviser” for more than a decade.
Strachan says that during that time the department created inconsistent policies in handling use of force, misconduct and other issues at the heart of the consultants’ reports.
“His strategy is to throw so much mud on top of the Sheriff’s Office to distract people from realizing that I’m the new guy and he was inside this Sheriff’s Office for years,” Strachan said. “We’ve been spending a great deal of time trying to improve process in place when John was here.”
Strachan accuses Urquhart of dwelling on the past, instead of focusing on how to improve the Sheriff’s Office.
“I’m not here to talk about history. I’m here to talk about where we’re going,” Strachan said.
Strachan said his leadership focus has always been centered on talking directly to the rank-and-file about policy changes and the direction he wants to take the agency.
At the Sheriff’s Office, Strachan has helped restore annual tactical and communication skills training for deputies — at an annual cost of $250,000 to the county. Before, he said, deputies would do online training for such things as how to use fire extinguishers and how to fill out forms.
“If you want officers who are going to use force appropriately, fight crime and treat the public appropriately, you need to train them and you need to equip them the right way,” Strachan said.
Strachan, who has been criticized by Urquhart for giving sergeants too much responsibility without training, said he has started a new sergeants academy. He said they’re also on the cusp of starting a leadership academy for sergeants and captains.
“We have a lack of consistency among managers and command staff,” Strachan said.
On Friday, Strachan announced he will fill 14 of 20 vacant patrol positions by next summer because of cost savings due to new patrol scheduling and expected attrition. The scheduling plan allows for deputies to be shifted among precincts to cover vacancies, instead of paying for overtime.
But Urquhart, in an email, said the staffing plan results in increased response times, less community policing and less supervision of deputies.
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.