Four years after the 2015 election, King County still hasn’t given the majority of voters the law-enforcement oversight they selected. Those 251,659 voters — an impressive 58% of the turnout— amended the county charter to require greater accountability for the Sheriff’s Office.
The election wrote into the charter that the civilian Office of Law Enforcement Oversight shall “investigate, review and analyze conduct of law enforcement officers … and shall be authorized by ordinance to obtain all relevant information” from officers and records. A subsequent county ordinance, in 2017, clarified that the agency’s powers include issuing “a subpoena to compel any person” to testify and produce evidence. The OLEO has a pending request to get its subpoena power explicitly written into the charter as well.
Yet years later, the agency has yet to successfully subpoena anyone. It reviews investigations each year; the most recent report shows the OLEO examined 127 internal Sheriff’s Office investigations in 2018 and requested more information — such as records and interviews — to certify 27 of them as satisfactory. And in 18 cases, OLEO investigators found that the office couldn’t obtain enough information, for reasons including failures by the sheriff to investigate further and to give a deputy written notice of an investigation.
That’s 18 times the civilian agency in charge of holding the Sheriff’s Office accountable couldn’t close its investigation satisfactorily because its power to dig far enough was blocked.
Although the agency’s subpoena power is mandated by county ordinance, officials say it is trumped by the law enforcement collective bargaining agreement, which has legal precedence in personnel matters.
The OLEO’s quest for subpoena power is currently part of the long-running negotiations to forge a new collective bargaining agreement for sheriff’s deputies, which may fall to a mediator to settle later this year. An OLEO memo sent to the County Charter Review Commission March 20 makes clear that the present situation is a disappointing outlier. It states that the King Couny Council, Ombudsman, Personnel Board and four other government entities hold subpoena power to some degree, and that police oversight offices in at least 16 other cities nationwide can issue subpoenas.
The public interest would best be served if these negotiations lead to union consent to the accountability written in the charter and the ordinance. But the assertion that law enforcement unions have the power to negotiate terms that overrule statutes must be examined at a higher level: the state Legislature.
Legislators won’t make friends in police unions by taking this power away, but a bedrock principle of governance is that those sworn to obey the law are also subject to it. Voters made clear they wanted an accountability agency with actual oversight power, not one that has to shrug off complaints that come before it. A collective bargaining agreement should not hold more power than the will of the people.