The office that oversees internal investigations within the King County sheriff’s department lacks independence and authority, according to a recent report.
King County leaders are pushing to reform the civilian-run agency that oversees misconduct investigations within the sheriff’s office, following the release of a critical report Tuesday.
The Office of Law Enforcement Oversight lacks power and access to information when handling complaints involving the sheriff’s office, according to the findings. The office is in a state of flux following a leadership change and harassment allegations and is searching for a permanent director.
The sheriff can limit or block the agency’s access to case information under current agreements and is responsible for bargaining terms related to oversight, which creates an inherent conflict of interest and potentially leaves room for unfair monitoring, according to the report by the King County Auditor’s Office.
Sheriff John Urquhart said the audit mischaracterizes his office’s goal of effective oversight and if there was any error with his methods of holding officers accountable, it would reflect poorly on him.
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“We are the negotiators. Somebody’s got to do that, and it’s us,” he said. “If I bargain something that’s going to reduce the confidence of the public, I will pay.”
The report suggests the sheriff’s office propose new limits to its contract terms with OLEO by next summer. Officials plan to further discuss the audit and its recommendations in the coming weeks.
County leaders are mulling a proposal to strengthen the watchdog unit’s authority by defining its role and access to information in the county charter. If it gets the full Metropolitan King County Council’s approval this month, the measure will go before voters in November.
It’s a chance for the public to affirm the unit’s role in investigating alleged misconduct by deputies, which can sometimes “get swept underneath the rug,” said Metropolitan King County Council Chair Larry Phillips.
The council passed an ordinance in 2009 to create the office to monitor complaints and determine if their subsequent investigations are objective and thorough. It reports annually to the County Council, though the audit urges more frequent reporting.
The office’s first director, Charles Gaither, opened the office in 2011 and left in September 2014 following multiple internal investigations into his behavior. The week he resigned, he filed a $1 million claim against the county alleging harassment, which was quickly settled for about $100,000.
County officials expect to name his permanent successor in the coming months, which they say will be an opportune time to rework protocol.
Interim Director Patti Cole-Tindall, who also is the county executive’s director of labor relations, said that since taking over OLEO in November, she’s had frequent communication with the sheriff’s office and seen the oversight agency experience positive change.
OLEO reviewed and certified 14 cases last year since her arrival, and on two of those cases she had requested more investigation, according to the OLEO 2014 report. Of the total 322 complaints processed last year by the internal investigations unit, or the sheriff’s independent review agency, 60 percent originated with citizens and nearly 40 percent came from internal staff members and officials.
“What we have now appears to be working — we think it’s working, the OLEO director seems to think it’s working,” Urquhart said. “There are a lot of moving parts … and if you’re not careful, it could go wrong.”