By a substantial margin, King County’s voters have placed immense trust in the hands of the County Council and Executive Dow Constantine. In Tuesday’s election, they assigned to county government responsibility for appointing the sheriff and managing the office structure. That reverses the voters’ 1996 decision to elect a sheriff directly accountable to the people.
While county government has long held the power to set the sheriff’s budget, the new changes to the county charter put law enforcement fully under county authority.
The successful campaign gained momentum from this year’s Black Lives Matter-driven calls for policing reform. But soon begins the hard work of governance.
The council and Constantine so strongly desired to control the sheriff’s office that they asked voters for this power two different ways on the ballot. Most voters said yes to both. Voters must remember the promises that were part of this request and hold county government fully accountable.
That means watching the council for any signs of cronyism or micromanagement. The County Council must learn from the Seattle City Council’s haphazard manipulation of the Seattle Police Department and govern more responsibly.
One big test will play out in public. The change allows Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht to serve out her elected term, giving the council until the end of 2021 to decide on reappointment or replacement. With an appointed sheriff, officials promised a depoliticized, national search for the best qualified sheriff possible — not the person best at running for office. Constantine will nominate the sheriff for the council to confirm. Each must be held accountable for this hire.
More than a dozen cities and agencies around King County pay the sheriff’s office to handle local policing. Those relationships must be carefully maintained as the council considers reforms to policing practices.
The council also bears responsibility for ensuring deputies are held fully accountable for their conduct. A separate amendment passed overwhelmingly that inserts into the charter subpoena power for the county Office of Law Enforcement Oversight. Deputies’ contracts have exempted them from this important accountability mechanism. The council and Constantine now have a duty to strike a stronger deal.
The council must also be straightforward about the mission of county law enforcement and how potential reforms — such as handing off some crisis responses to social workers or mental-health professionals — can be done safely.
Council members said they wanted appointment and management power because they wanted civilians to oversee policing, not because they faulted Johanknecht and wanted her out.
They must prove it, or voters should remember why they chose in 1996 to separate the sheriff’s selection and duties from council control.