King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht on Tuesday denied her office allowed potential reforms to “die on the vine” after the 2017 fatal shooting of a 17-year-old high school student by undercover deputies, and defended her role as a police reformer to members of the Metropolitan King County Council’s Law and Justice committee.
The sheriff appeared before the committee, as well as an audience that included families and friends of people killed in police shootings, to respond to a blistering report presented two weeks ago by the civilian-run Office of Law Enforcement Oversight. That report, prepared by Michael Gennaco, a former Los Angeles federal civil-rights prosecutor, was sharply critical of the circumstances that led to an undercover ambush of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens and another teenager by undercover deputies who targeted the wrong person while investigating the homicide of another police officer’s son.
Johanknecht opened her presentation by offering condolences to Dunlap-Gittens’ parents in the audience behind her.
“I acknowledge their pain and the loss of their son today,” the sheriff said. “Those in our community and no one in law enforcement wants to find themselves in a situation that results in a loss of life.”
After the meeting, Dunlap-Gittens’ father, Frank Gittens, said he didn’t feel the sheriff was sincere. Dunlap-Gittens’ mother, Alexis Dunlap, a county Metro bus driver, said the sheriff’s offered sympathy “is three years late.” The boy’s parents have sued the county and four deputies over the shooting.
The sheriff had issued a written response to the OLEO report two weeks ago, but appeared before the committee to address the issues personally — at least as far as she could, given a pending lawsuit. However, her presentation was not enough for committee chairman Girmay Zahilay, who said he intends to draft legislation that will require the sheriff’s office to submit detailed written responses to each of the 39 reforms called for in the report.
Zahilay said after the hearing that he felt the sheriff “took a defensive posture” and that the “magnitude of the issues presented by the report require a detailed response.”
The most significant finding in Gennaco’s report stated that the sheriff’s office missed an opportunity to implement reforms suggested by an administrative review conducted after Dunlap-Gittens was killed. Johanknecht strongly denied that, giving the council examples where the department either adopted or is in the process of implementing some of the recommendations.
“Allegations that reforms were left to die on the vine are simply not true,” she said.
Johanknecht is working toward other reforms, including some of those called for in the OLEO report, she said. However, she told the county that some recommendations can’t be implemented without negotiations with the King County Police Officers Guild. Those included an OLEO- and public-backed demand that the county do away with a negotiated 48-hour delay in compelling an officer’s statement after a shooting, for administrative purposes.
“Oversight is important,” she said. “But it must be bargained.”
That would be true, she said, regardless of whether the county continues with an elected sheriff or changes its charter to a sheriff appointed by the executive — a suggestion brought up by committee members at a meeting on the report two weeks ago.
Johanknecht reminded the audience and committee members that she “ran on reform” when she was elected two years ago.
“I embrace reform,” she said, pointing out that she was an early supporter for the campaign to pass I-940, which implemented a statewide system for independent investigations of officer-involved uses of deadly force.
The sheriff repeatedly told the council that the issues were complicated and that officer-involved shootings involve parallel criminal and administrative investigations where one can’t be allowed to interfere or pollute the other. In the criminal investigation into a police shooting — now conducted by an outside agency after the passage of I-940 — officers are given the Miranda warning against self-incrimination and can invoke their 5th Amendment protections and obtain an attorney before being interviewed.
That’s why community members, the families and advocates believe that the sheriff’s office should compel an immediate statement as part of its administrative review of the officer’s actions as the best way to get to the truth. Labor law provides for such compelled statements; however, no information obtained through a compelled statement can be used in the separate criminal probe.
Johanknecht’s presentation was halting and at one point, committee chairman Zahilay asked the sheriff if she would be willing to implement reforms, even at the risk of angering the union. She sidestepped the question, stating that she didn’t think it was “fair to ask if I’d stand up for these changes when I have.”
Meantime, the guild has filed a grievance against OLEO over the release of Gennaco’s report, claiming its focus on a single shooting to leverage system-wide reforms violates its charter and that Gennaco should not have been allowed to review the case.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the council was also expected to take up OLEO recommendations for new use-of-force policies under consideration by the sheriff’s office, but that portion of the meeting was postponed for lack of time. However, the council and sheriff were presented with a letter signed by 14 community and civil-rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, asking the sheriff’s office to revise its policies on when deputies can use deadly force and how those cases are reviewed.
Johanknecht said she had seen the letter and wanted to review its suggestions before responding.