As King County Executive Dow Constantine begins searching for a new sheriff, he should keep in mind the recent report concerning the 2019 officer-involved shooting death of Anthony “Tony” Chilcott.
The new hire represents a new start — the county’s first appointed sheriff in more than two decades. The County Council created a 13-member Public Safety Advisory Committee to gather community input for the sheriff selection process. The committee is also charged with drafting a report to guide the appointment. As part of these discussions, the committee will engage stakeholders to examine how law enforcement could be improved across the county.
King County residents approved this change last year to bring greater accountability to the department. The Office of Law Enforcement Oversight’s scathing report into the Chilcott shooting shows why that accountability is so desperately needed, and offers insight into what kind of sheriff the county needs.
If the two King County Sheriff’s Office detectives who shot the Black Diamond man were trying to protect civilians from potential harm, they could have done that without escalating the situation. They could have stayed with bystanders or removed them from the area. Instead, the detective who was driving rammed into Chilcott’s truck with his own vehicle and held a gun to the man’s head. In the chaotic moments that followed, both detectives shot Chilcott, ending his life.
The detectives themselves are responsible for their egregious violation of community trust and department policy. Yet, the sheriff’s responsibility is to ensure a culture in which such dangerous and aberrant behavior is unthinkable.
A decade ago, then-Sheriff Sue Rahr emphasized the concept of law enforcement officers as guardians of their communities — not warriors at odds with the people they serve. That’s why it is striking that among the 23 recommendations in OLEO’s review of the 2019 officer-involved shooting, presented last month to the Metropolitan King County Council’s Law and Justice Committee, was direction to clarify prohibitions against using force based on a fear of potential danger rather than in response to an imminent threat.
“While we do know that one of the detectives was terminated as a result of this incident, there was really no formal messaging from KCSO leadership to its members emphasizing the prohibition of speculation as a sufficient basis to use force,” OLEO Senior Policy Analyst Katy Kirschner told members of the committee.
“We do know that KCSO agrees that speculation (and) generalized fear is not a sufficient basis to use force, but the internal messaging and expectation-setting within KCSO has not been consistent.”
That’s unacceptable. The sheriff should set crystal clear expectations. Messaging starts at the top.
In her response, outgoing Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht laid all responsibility at the feet of the fired detective who went on the offensive in violation of department standards, unnecessarily escalating the situation that lead to Chilcott’s death.
“Our members train in de-escalation techniques, and practice them almost daily,” she wrote. “KCSO’s expectation is that our commissioned personnel will use time, distance and cover whenever possible to slow down a situation and (effect) a positive outcome that avoids the use of force. That did not happen here.”
She fired that detective, George Alvarez, earlier this year.
But that’s not enough. The sheriff bears ultimate responsibility for her department. It’s up to the sheriff to make sure good policies stick.
Elected in 2017, Johanknecht’s tenure has been marked with controversy. Her term expires at year end.
Candidates seeking to replace her should have proven records of setting clear and inviolable expectations for officers as guardians. Executive Constantine must select, and the county council must confirm, the candidate who can set this new direction for the department.