King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht is facing heat following the leak of an internal email she sent hours after her office announced a $5 million settlement in the shooting death of a 20-year-old Burien high-school student, who was shot and killed by a deputy in 2017.
Metropolitan King County Councilmember Joe McDermott and the family of the student are calling on Johanknecht to resign. Johanknecht offered no response Saturday, but a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office said Johanknecht does not intend to leave her post.
During a Wednesday morning news conference, the family of Tommy Le, a Vietnamese American man who was shot in the back by a deputy the day he was to graduate from high school, announced that the Sheriff’s Office had agreed to a settlement. By Wednesday afternoon, Johanknecht sent an email to Sheriff’s Office staff about the settlement, writing, “this case is not a reflection of how I view the actions” of the deputy who shot Le, Cesar Molina. The email was first reported by the South Seattle Emerald.
“[Molina] made the tough decisions that sometimes must be made in our profession,” Johanknecht wrote. “Deputy Molina attempted using other means of protecting the civilians who called for help, before he fired his weapon that day … I just spoke with Deputy Molina. I shared my appreciation of the difficulty of decision[s] and actions he had to take. I also appreciate the teamwork all contributing members made that night to protect the residents of that neighborhood and the following investigative work. I will remain steadfast in support of all of you.”
Le’s death and the investigation that followed triggered widespread criticism by members of the community and police experts. On the night of June 14, 2017, Le reportedly ran at deputies who had responded to a report of a disoriented man, possibly armed with a knife or sharp object, who had threatened several people in a Burien neighborhood. The Sheriff’s Office initially said Le attacked responding deputies, and that Molina shot Le in self-defense. Le was unarmed, but reportedly was carrying a ballpoint pen.
Later, an outside review of the case described a “lack of rigor” in the internal investigation. And the final investigation failed to mention that of the six shots Molina fired, two hit Le in the back. A third hit Le’s wrist.
Johanknecht wasn’t sheriff at the time of the shooting.
But in calling for Johanknecht to step down, council vice chair McDermott said in a Friday statement that Johanknecht’s email “ripped the bandage off a still fresh and painful wound.” McDermott represents District 8, which includes Southwest Seattle, Burien and Vashon Island. He did not immediately respond to calls or emails Saturday.
“This was a tragedy, and a tragedy that too many communities of color know too well,” McDermott wrote. Johanknecht’s email “ignored this reality and was, in the most charitable light one might muster, disrespectful to the young person who was killed, to his family and to our entire community.”
Le’s family added to the resignation call and said through their lawyer that Johanknecht — who was elected in 2017 — should leave office before her term is up at the end of 2021. In November, voters moved to strip power from the Sheriff’s Office by moving it from an elected to an appointed position.
Jeffery Campiche, the Le family’s lawyer, said Johanknecht’s comments don’t have legal implications — a federal judge has accepted the settlement. But, Campiche said, the email gives “insight into the sheriff’s value system.”
“Of course they support the removal of the sheriff. Why wouldn’t they?” Campiche said of the Le family. The email, he said, “illustrates the fact that the sheriff is more interested in protecting the deputy and the department from the consequence of the illegal act of shooting the unarmed boy in the back than protecting the public from unlawful deadly force by officers in her department.”
Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles, who represents District 4 — west of Interstate 5, from Shoreline to downtown Seattle — said the nine-member council has little power to force Johanknecht out. The political complexities of replacing Johanknecht before her term is done aren’t worth it, Kohl-Welles said.
“If the sheriff wants to resign that’s one thing. I don’t know that we could force her to do that,” Kohl-Welles said. “There’s not much time left.”
The County Council’s other members didn’t immediately respond to phone and email messages Saturday. King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office also didn’t respond to messages.
This is the second time in a month that families have called on Johanknecht to leave. In mid-March, relatives of several Black men and a teenager shot and killed in recent years asked her to resign for what they described as “her failure to treat racism with the seriousness it requires.”