Deborah Jacobs, who worked for the American Civil Liberties Union for many years, has been hired as director of King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight.
King County’s new law-enforcement watchdog will have the authority to refer complaints about deputies to the sheriff and review the results of internal investigations.
But in a job that has been hampered for years by turmoil, confusion over its authority and a lack of teeth, Deborah Jacobs, the newly appointed director of the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), will test ground that shifted last year when voters approved a measure to clarify and strengthen OLEO’s role.
Jacobs, 48, started in the position Wednesday.
One facet of OLEO remains clear: Like most citizen organizations that keep an eye on police agencies, it cannot participate in internal investigations overseen by the independently elected sheriff, nor can it overturn or change the findings.
So Jacobs, who has a lengthy background working for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), will need to rely on her ability to be what she calls an “aggressive advocate” on behalf of those policed by the King County Sheriff’s Office, and to collaborate with Sheriff John Urquhart when she sees a need to bolster policies.
But one of her first tasks, Jacobs said in an interview with The Seattle Times, will be to sort out the powers and limitations of her job.
“This is the now that’s going to implicate the later,” she said of the importance of determining the parameters of her job and making it as strong as possible.
Voters approved a charter amendment in November, expanding the scope and authority of OLEO, which began operations in 2011, and making the appointment of the director and the members of OLEO’s Citizen’s Advisory Committee the responsibility of the Metropolitan King County Council and not the county executive.
An interim director took over the office last year after the director resigned amid controversy over his performance.
Jacobs, hired by the council after a national search, is returning to the Northwest, where she grew up in Ellensburg as a “little bit of a positive troublemaker” in high school on civil-liberties issues.
After attending Skidmore College in New York, she studied as a Fulbright scholar in Helsinki, Finland, then worked as a legal associate for the ACLU of Washington in Seattle from 1992 to 1996.
She then served as executive director of the ACLU of Eastern Missouri until 1999, then held the same position for the ACLU of New Jersey until 2012.
To critics of the ACLU, Jacobs said: “Keep in mind the ACLU isn’t taking this job. Deborah Jacobs is taking this job. And I believe that civil-liberties principles are entirely consistent with best police practices as well.”
“One of the reasons this job appealed to me,” she added, “was to do it in an environment that’s relatively progressive on an understanding of the need for trust between police and community.”
By national standards, Jacobs said, the Sheriff’s Office is known as a “strong and progressive” organization with an impressive leader.
Urquhart, she said, has carved out a reputation as a strong disciplinarian who has not hesitated to fire deputies, and “gets it” when it comes to the need for public trust.
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In an email, Urquhart wrote: “The support of the community is a critical measure of the success of the Sheriff’s Office, and civilian oversight is part of the support. I am excited to have Deborah as the new OLEO director and look forward to a collaborative relationship.”
After leaving the ACLU, Jacobs joined the nonprofit Ms. Foundation for Women, serving as vice president for advocacy and policy between 2012 and 2014.
In 2014, she opened Get it Right Consulting in the St. Louis area, where she provided strategic communication for the Don’t Shoot Coalition formed in response to the highly publicized police shooting of an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, by a white officer in Ferguson, Mo.
County Council Chairman Joe McDermott said Jacobs’ work related to Ferguson impressed the council, as well as her national profile and her expertise on oversight and management.
“People seek her out for knowledge and expertise …,” McDermott said, noting Jacobs has the potential to shape OLEO and make it into a leading police-oversight agency.
McDermott said that while Urquhart is doing a good job, he won’t always be managing the Sheriff’s Office.
He said the King County Police Officers Guild opposed the ballot measure, but participated in the hiring process and supported the decision to select Jacobs. A guild official couldn’t be reached.
Jacobs, appointed to a four-year term, will earn a salary of $152,282.
Among her top priorities, she said, is buttressing community outreach, meeting with the citizen advisory committee and evaluating whether OLEO’s staffing, which includes three other people, is adequate, an issue cited in three external reports.
Even as the county faces a budget shortfall, she said she is likely to seek more staff to meet the volume of work and make OLEO a strong advocate.