Last November, in the wake of protests across America demanding justice for Black Americans killed by the state, King County voters took two important steps toward police accountability and law enforcement transformation.
As part of the once per decade Charter Review, voters approved two amendments — one that makes the King County sheriff an appointed position, and another that changes the structure and duties of the Sheriff’s Office.
Embracing change, voters created a clear mandate for more professional, transparent, accountable law enforcement, for a Sheriff’s Office free of political campaigning and for civilian control.
The sheriff will be appointed by and accountable to the King County Executive and Metropolitan King County Council.
Voters gave the council power to determine the scope of the sheriff’s duties. The Executive’s Office will take charge of all human resource functions, including hiring and discipline, as well as bargaining working conditions.
The message from the community can’t be missed: The Sheriff’s Office must embrace and reflect the values of King County residents.
I have spoken with Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht about the challenges that she and the Sheriff’s Office face. In light of these challenges, and the shift of authority and responsibility from the sheriff to the Executive Office in less than nine months, I urged her to consider retiring immediately and allowing the people of King County and the law enforcement community to instead focus on the important transition ahead.
We have now begun a thorough, community-centered process to gather ideas and priorities for how true safety should be secured in King County’s neighborhoods, and the qualities needed in a new sheriff who will make that vision real.
We need a transparent system for hiring and accountability that merits confidence in deputies and the public. We need to stop asking police to solve every problem, and provide robust health and human services for those in behavioral health crises without resorting to force. And we need to change how deputies interact with the communities they serve.
King County’s Behavioral Health Division is already collaborating with the city of Des Moines to support a co-responder team that includes behavioral-health experts working alongside Des Moines police.
A model like this also is in place with the city of Seattle and city of Shoreline.
We will begin an in-depth conversation with the people of White Center and Skyway — urban unincorporated areas where King County serves as the local government — to learn together how to create true, trusted community safety.
This model of co-creation — with funding to ensure everyone can participate — will invite those most directly affected to help redefine public safety and, we hope, serve as inspiration for other jurisdictions.
As we mourn the loss of those who died during encounters with police, including local residents Charleena Lyles, Tommy Le, Renee Davis, John T. Williams and others, and work to heal hurting communities and devastated families, we will strive to prevent future tragedies and create a Sheriff’s Office that meets the expectations and merits the confidence of the communities it serves. This begins with considering the moral justification for use of force policies, and not just the narrow question of legal justification. Was there an alternative? What could have been done differently — not just by that officer in that moment, but by the department and governments and entire community — to protect life?
This is the future the new King County sheriff will inherit.
The next sheriff will be welcomed by a region that is remarkably aligned around these expectations. The County Council, experts in law enforcement oversight and accountability, advocates for crime victims, community leaders, and many deputies agree that past practices must change, that we need a new approach, consistent with our values, and that we must hold ourselves to a higher standard.
King County tackled the COVID-19 pandemic by trusting the experts, working collaboratively with community partners, moving quickly, and making sure our response considered historic barriers and bias.
We can rally to transform public safety in much the same way — relying on our values to guide us, and with optimism that there is no challenge that we cannot solve. The opportunity for transformation is here. And we need to take it.