Multiple complaints — including several serious cases involving allegations of sexual assault, false arrest, an illegal search and false reporting — weren’t investigated to determine whether deputies should be cleared of wrongdoing or needed further training or discipline.

Share story

An outside consultant’s review of the way the King County Sheriff’s Office classified misconduct complaints against deputies in 2016 found widespread problems and inconsistencies, with many complaints wrongly categorized as insignificant or otherwise dismissed with little or no scrutiny.

At least 95 cases from a random sampling of 250 complaints assigned into minor investigation categories that don’t receive further scrutiny and can’t lead to formal discipline were “classified incorrectly or contained insufficient justification for classification,” according to the review conducted by the Connecticut-based Daigle Law Group.

As a result, multiple complaints — including several serious cases involving allegations of sexual assault, false arrest, an illegal search and false reporting — weren’t investigated to determine whether deputies should be cleared of wrongdoing or needed further training or discipline, the review found.

“This system does not comply with current industry standards and is contrary to the spirit of early intervention and progressive discipline,” the review found. “Therefore, appropriate classification of incoming complaints, with clear policy, is imperative.”

The review — undertaken at a cost of $25,000 — echoes similar findings of misclassified complaints in 2017 by the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), the Sheriff’s Office’s civilian-led watchdog agency.

OLEO’s director Deborah Jacobs and its Senior Law Enforcement Analyst Adrienne Wat presented the report and its recommendations calling for more investigators and a classification system overhaul to the Metropolitan King County Council’s Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday.

Since Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht took office in January, Wat noted, OLEO has “seen significant improvements in the Internal Investigations operations, including addressing misclassifications.”

“However, part of what protects an agency from bad practices or people are strong policies and systems,” Jacobs added in an email this week.

Sgt. Ryan Abbott, a spokesman for Johanknecht, said in an email Tuesday the Sheriff’s Office welcomes such oversight and isn’t surprised by the report’s findings. Both he and Liz Rocca, Johanknecht’s chief of staff, acknowledged “a handful” of serious complaints were misclassified during the period reviewed.

But both also said the report contained some inaccuracies about the department’s structure and internal-affairs procedures. Rocca also told the council Tuesday the new sheriff already has undertaken various improvements, including assigning a new commander to the department’s Internal Investigations Unit (IIU).

“We do take all complaints seriously now, and we properly classify them,” Rocca said.

Led by attorney Eric Daigle, the Daigle Law Group that carried out the review is nationally recognized for its work in developing and conducting internal-investigations training for law-enforcement agencies.

The group’s work in King County included reviewing the department’s policies and data for all 698 complaints made in 2016. It also delved deeper into a random sampling of 250 files classified under two minor investigation categories and 32 other, full major investigations undertaken that year, the most recent with a full year of data at the time the review.

The review found about two-thirds of the nearly 700 complaints in 2016 were classified as non-investigatory matters (NIMs) or Supervisor Action Log (SALs) — categories that cannot result in a full-blown internal investigations or discipline under the sheriff’s internal-affairs system.

It also found at least 55 complaints categorized as NIMs and at least 40 classified as SALs, were erroneously designated or not sufficiently justified for such classifications.

Overall, the report found that case files were so inconsistent and incomplete that reviewing them was “difficult and tedious,” with some cases missing even the most basic information, such as who filed the complaint or how the complaint was fielded.

Daigle’s report issued 24 recommendations for improvements. Among them:

• The Sheriff’s Office should establish a new classification system that limits discretion and increases the range of discipline across all complaints categories;

• The department must update its policies to ensure that complaints are widely accepted in a variety of formats and aren’t closed or otherwise disregarded simply because a subject or complainant is unavailable, unwilling or unable to cooperate with an investigation;

• The department should consider adding more investigators, including those who specialize in use-of-force cases, to ensure quicker and more thorough investigations.

Johanknecht embraces the recommendation calling for more investigators, said Rocca, who noted the department has just four investigators to handle roughly 600 complaints per year.

By comparison, she said, the similarly sized Oakland, California, Police Department has 13 investigators.

Abbott noted parts of the report “appear to be boilerplate and show a lack of knowledge of the Sheriff’s Office and its procedures.”

“For example, the report says we don’t investigate anonymous and 3rd party complaints, but this is not true,” he said.

Such “errors and misunderstandings” could have been avoided had Daigle called Sheriff’s administrators, Abbott said.

Daigle said in a phone call Tuesday that when his firm conducts such reviews, it purposely “tries to limit the involvement of the agencies.”

“We just want to see the documents and data,” he said. “Often, agency officials will tell you that they do something different than what the records tell you.”

OLEO’s own limited review of complaint classifications found similar problems persisting in 2017, including an incident involving a deputy who “threw a complainant to the ground and used unnecessary force,” Jacobs said. That case was classified as a “non-investigatory matter” that resulted in no investigation, she said.

The way the Sheriff’s Office handles internal-affairs probes became a festering concern within the department in recent years that ultimately spilled over publicly during last year’s campaign for sheriff.

Several senior deputies voiced concerns about the integrity of internal investigations, contending former Sheriff John Urquhart and his top administrators sometimes meddled with them and used investigations as a way to settle personal scores.

Urquhart roundly denied such contentions, claiming he was a tough-but-fair disciplinarian who weighed in on investigations when appropriate as a way to ensure cases were being handled correctly and problem officers held accountable. He generally has dismissed his critics as politically motivated or self-serving.