Less than 25 years after King County voters took back the right to elect the county’s sheriff, powerful forces want to yank that authority away and make the office county-appointed. While both sides in this important election debate make persuasive arguments, the sheriff should remain elected by the people.
In November 1996, a strong majority of voters — 57% — agreed that the sheriff should be independently elected, as it had been from 1852 to 1969. Two measures on the November ballot, King County Charter Amendments 5 and 6, would reverse that outcome — one directly, and one through a naked legislative power grab. Voters should reject both amendments.
Charter Amendment No. 5 is straightforward. The King County Charter Review Commission, which meets every 10 years, recommended the county executive should appoint the sheriff and appointments be approved by the council. The justifications echoes what the losing side in 1996 argued: An appointed sheriff could come from a nationwide talent pool, instead of just King County. Oversight from the county executive and council would mean faster accountability than the ballot box every four years. At best, that’s a mixed bag.
Being able to recruit nationwide for a law enforcement leader can be a benefit. Former Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, hired from Boston, implemented extensive reforms during her time here. But it cuts both ways. A sheriff appointed from outside would face a steep learning curve given the vast stretches of unincorporated King County and its growing suburban cities. An elected sheriff needs to know the county and its people to win office.
The 16 cities and agencies, including cities from Woodinville to SeaTac, that pay the Sheriff’s Office to police their streets cover much of the department’s annual budget. Putting that policing under a left-leaning county executive and council majority might prompt some contract cities to leave the sheriff’s department and create their own police departments. That could imperil consistent countywide policing now provided by the sheriff’s department as well as cripple its budget.
The recent knee-jerk actions of the Seattle City Council show the danger of micromanaging law enforcement. The County Council certainly has a different membership, but some members now want to dictate the structure and duties of the sheriff’s department. Further, it was County Executive Dow Constantine who fought to build the state-of-the-art — and voter-approved — Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center, completed this year for $242 million. But then he announced in July after the center had opened and during protests to defund police that he plans to reduce detention space for “therapeutic and community use” by 2025. He also announced a rolling shut down of the downtown Seattle jail, shifting operations to the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent.
The prudent path to reforming and enhancing law enforcement is direct, and specific: make policing accountable to voters. Appointing the sheriff transfers that accountability to the county executive and council members. Voters already grade county officials on a range of responsibilities, from transportation to regional sewer treatment. Police oversight should not get lost in that mix.
Proposed Charter Amendment No. 6 is in some ways is worse. It would give the county council near-total control of managing the department. This idea flowed directly to the ballot from the County Council, not the charter-review commission. Voters must regard that as political sleight of hand. It’s asking the same question a different way, giving the council two bites at the apple: Seizing control of an agency that voters wanted to remain independent.
The King County Sheriff’s Office needs oversight and must embrace long-overdue reforms, including strengthening the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight. And the Legislature must restrict police contracts from shedding accountability during the bargaining process. The Metropolitan King County Council already controls the sheriff’s budget. It’s the wrong entity to be put in charge of running the entire department. Voters must reject proposed Charter Amendments No. 5 and 6.