Charles Gaither, the civilian in charge of outside oversight of the King County Sheriff’s Office, will step down from the job Friday after what he describes as three “difficult” years.
Seated in his office Thursday morning, Gaither was visibly upset when discussing his resignation from King County‘s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO). He spoke of the challenges he faced in the job, but offered no specific reason why he was leaving after less than three years.
He did say his efforts to effect change in Sheriff’s Office oversight were greeted with hostility and political maneuvering by opponents, although he did not single out any individual. Gaither also said he has had little communication with Sheriff John Urquhart.
The county disputed Gaither’s claim of a lack of support for OLEO.
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“Mr. Gaither’s allegations regarding the County’s lack of support for the mission of Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) could not be further from the truth. The Council established and has consistently funded the office, and remains fully committed to its effective oversight of law enforcement,” Metropolitan King County Council Chair Larry Phillips and Councilmember Larry Gossett, chair of the council’s Employment and Administration Committee, said in a joint statement.
The statement also said “serious issues of his management and personnel skills — issues not related to the mission of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight — played the central role” in discussions with Gaither that prompted his resignation.
Gaither said he had earned an unfair reputation for being “aggressive” and difficult to work with. He said that for more than a year there has been “political maneuvering” to get him to quit.
“It’s a difficult environment when you don’t have the capacity to compel change,” Gaither said in an interview. “This was not the best recipe for effective civilian oversight in law enforcement.”
The Office of Law Enforcement Oversight was created in 2006 after a blue-ribbon panel was asked to review accountability and discipline inside the Sheriff’s Office. After much controversy, including an unfair-labor-practice complaint filed by the King County Police Officers Guild and extensive contract negotiations with the guild, the ordinance establishing its creation was repealed.
Additional guild negotiations followed before the council in 2009 approved the ordinance that created the OLEO.
Gaither, a former investigator with the Los Angeles Police Department, was appointed its first director in 2011. He reported to the County Council.
In Thursday’s interview, Gaither, 44, said the office is grossly understaffed with only two employees, including himself. He believes that reflects the lack of importance the county places on OLEO’s mission.
The OLEO office, Gaither said, reviewed more than 300 complaints filed against Sheriff’s Office employees last year. Gaither said his office reviews complaints filed with the sheriff’s office involving improper use of force, conduct unbecoming and violations of professional standards. The sheriff’s office conducts its own investigation of the complaints.
“We would review the investigations for quality to make sure they were objective and thorough. We didn’t conduct independent investigations,” Gaither said. “It was all we could do under the ordinance.”
According to its website, the agency’s “primary role is to accept complaints against the Sheriff’s Office, monitor the investigation and resolution of all complaints, and determine if internal investigations are thorough and objective.”
In cases where members of OLEO staff find that additional investigation is needed, they can make a request to the sheriff’s office for more information. The OLEO director can also take his concerns to King County Executive Dow Constantine.
A 2012 report by Merrick Bobb, the head of a Los Angeles-based consulting firm who is considered one of the nation’s leading experts on police accountability, found OLEO to be “understaffed to an astonishing degree.” Bobb, now the federal monitor overseeing a settlement agreement between Seattle police and the Department of Justice, also said more resources “should be provided … rapidly” and that the office should have the authority to reject inadequate use-of-force reviews.
Gaither said it has been impossible to gain any traction after having to work with three sheriffs in three years and frequent turnover in the internal-affairs unit and command staff. Gaither said he had support from former sheriffs Sue Rahr and Steve Strachan, but no real relationship with Urquhart, who took office in late 2012.
Gaither said he has spoken to Urquhart only twice in the past two months.
“We haven’t communicated as often as I would have liked,” Gaither said.
Urquhart, on Thursday, insisted he has “a very good relationship” with Gaither.
“We are like a family. OLEO is part of the sheriff’s office,” Urquhart said. “Most things we agreed on, but not everything.”
Gaither said that he got pushback from the County Council and the union representing deputies. He declined to go into specifics.
The county, in the joint statement issued by Phillips and Gossett, said, “When the Council established OLEO, we understood the importance of the agency and the vital role it would have in restoring and maintaining the trust the residents of King County have in the King County Sheriff’s Office. The Council has not and will not waver from its commitment in having an effective and transparent Office of Law Enforcement Oversight for the King County Sheriff’s Office.”
Gaither said his greatest accomplishments in the office include creating a mediation program between deputies and the public to resolve complaints, supporting the purchase of an interactive firearms training simulator to train deputies in deadly force situations, and engaging the NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington and other groups “to ensure accountable policing.”
“Despite these and other successes, support for effective oversight of the Sheriff’s Office waned and the spirit of collaboration was replaced with conflict and political maneuvering,” Gaither wrote in a news release Thursday. “As the environment grew more hostile, I recognized that effective civilian oversight of law enforcement could not be achieved.”
Gaither said that when the Sheriff’s Office recently reinstated training for lateral vascular neck restraints after a 10-year hiatus, he knew he was finished.
“That was the last straw,” he said. “You implement a policy like that?”
Gaither criticized the policy and the tactic, known by some as chokeholds.
The restraint technique involves applying pressure to the sides of the neck, restricting blood flow to the brain. The restraint can render a suspect unconscious in moments without inflicting permanent injury, according to sheriff’s officials.
Urquhart defends the decision to train deputies in the maneuver. He said they’ve been training in the tactic for almost a year and complaints from the OLEO office have only now surfaced.
“The idea of moving me out in one capacity or another has been on the books a long time,” Gaither said. “I’m tired.”