In a year of nationwide calls for police accountability, King County voters should write an overdue law-enforcement reform into the county charter. County Charter Amendment No. 4 on the November ballot would add law enforcement accountability to the county’s foundational legal document. Voters should approve this change to support an oversight agency that has been held back for years.
In 2015, 58% of county voters empowered the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight to review conduct by the Sheriff’s Office, which has more than 1,000 employees including hundreds of deputies. The ballot measure gave OLEO power to analyze officer conduct, with access to “all relevant information.” Yet that far-reaching authority has been restricted by the power of public-sector collective bargaining.
A 2017 county ordinance assigned OLEO authority to subpoena testimony and records about the sheriff’s internal investigations. But the Sheriff’s Office has bargained away the oversight agency’s subpoena power. The contract with the King County Police Officers’ Guild, which runs through 2021, limits which records OLEO can access.
This has real consequences. Every year, the OLEO issues an annual report about how many complaint investigations it conducts. And every year, it finds that many investigations were incomplete because of inadequate information. For 2019, OLEO certified 163 complaint investigations and found that 33 cases “did not meet its standards for thorough, objective and timely investigations.” An oversight agency with the power to do its job thoroughly wouldn’t have to shrug at incomplete work so often.
Giving the OLEO specific subpoena authority within the county charter won’t single-handedly fix accountability within the sheriff’s office. The oversight body needs authority and resources to conduct its own investigations judiciously, where it presently relies on what the sheriff’s internal investigators found.
Voter approval of Charter Amendment No. 4 would put weight behind this necessary reform. It would discourage the sheriff from again bargaining away accountability voters approved — though the matter would still remain negotiable.
Tensions between law enforcement and the greater public are at an intense crescendo nationwide. Voters should approve this county charter change, then press the Legislature to bar the Sheriff from undercutting public accountability. Large cities across the nation, including Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, provide their police oversight bodies with subpoena power. It’s well past time for all Puget Sound law enforcement agencies to live with transparency.