The recommendation was a centerpiece of a 33-page report commissioned by the director of the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) and presented to the Metropolitan King County Council’s Law and Justice Committee.
A civilian watchdog on Tuesday urged the King County Sheriff’s Office to adopt policies to rapidly correct wrong information released to the news media, without directly referring to mistakes that occurred in a deputy’s shooting of a 20-year-old man a year ago.
The recommendation was a centerpiece of a 33-page report commissioned by Deborah Jacobs, director of the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), and presented to the Metropolitan King County Council’s Law and Justice Committee.
The report, written without cost by the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, was redacted to exclude a section on the shooting of Tommy Le, 20, because it remains under investigation, with a pending inquest that has been delayed as the county considers changes in the proceeding.
As a result, there are public-disclosure restrictions under a collective-bargaining agreement with the King County Police Officers Guild.
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But an unredacted copy of the report, obtained by The Seattle Times, includes a description of the June 14, 2017, shooting of Le, which occurred around midnight after sheriff’s deputies responded to several 911 calls about a man making threats in Burien.
A news release issued by the sheriff’s office immediately after the shooting indicated deputies believed Le was holding a sharp object, maybe a knife.
Nine days later, responding to a story in the Seattle Weekly, the sheriff’s office issued a second news release, acknowledging Le was carrying a pen when he was shot.
During a public forum last July, then-Sheriff John Urquhart said a department investigation had found Le did have a knife at one point, but no longer had it when he was shot.
“What appears in the press about an incident has a profound impact on the public’s perception of an incident, as well as on the loved ones of anyone harmed during an interaction with police,” Jacobs said in a statement released in conjunction with her appearance before the committee. “It’s important that the Sheriff’s Office have policies that build trust and legitimacy with communities by ensuring communications originating from their office are accurate, timely, and respectful.”
No representatives of the sheriff’s office spoke at the meeting. But the sheriff’s office issued a statement saying Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht and her executive team reviewed the report in February 2018.
“At that time, we met with OLEO Director Jacobs regarding her concerns about how the previous administration handled public communication in the aftermath of an officer involved shooting in June 2017,” the statement said.
“We told Ms. Jacobs then, and want to assure the public now, that transparent and truthful communication is one of the Sheriff’s top priorities,” the statement added. “Since taking office, our administration has proactively released information, and accompanying documentation, quickly on a variety of issues. That information has been transmitted through public disclosure requests, press releases, on camera interviews and in social media posts so the information is easily obtained by anyone wishing to seek it.”
Jacobs, in a follow-up statement, wrote “we have not yet had a substantive conversation with the Sheriff’s Office about the report or the policy changes it recommends. Reassurances of transparency are welcome, but policy changes are what will help ensure against the spread of misinformation when it matters most.”
During the meeting, Jeff Campiche, a Seattle attorney representing Le’s family in a federal civil-rights lawsuit stemming from the shooting, said the wrong information released by the sheriff’s office compounded the harm they suffered, causing “shame and humiliation.” He was flanked by Le’s mother, Dieu Ho, and other relatives.