Washington’s workplace-safety agency has fined the King County Sheriff’s Office for failing to properly equip and train its deputies for policing mass protests and civil-unrest events, such as the racial-injustice demonstrations that erupted across Seattle and other U.S. cities last year.
But the violations issued in September by the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) against the state’s largest sheriff’s office have yet to prompt any practical action, with deputies still ill-equipped and undertrained for responding to large-scale demonstrations, according to the union that represents the county’s rank-and-file deputies.
“This has been an issue for 20 years,” said Bob Lurry, vice president of the King County Police Officers Guild. “The sheriff’s policy has been, ‘This is Seattle’s problem; stay out of it.’ But times change. These demonstrations can pop up anywhere at anytime. This simply isn’t an adequate way to address this anymore.”
Sgt. Tim Meyer, a spokesperson for King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht, said in a statement this week that since the L&I inspection, the Sheriff’s Office has “modified how we support requests for mutual aid” by offering to backfill patrol and provide other policing services to agencies that are focused on demonstrations.
“King County will remain a regional partner with our members by offering support that does not include demonstration management, until such time as there is adequate funding and equipment to do that work,” Meyer said.
Since widespread unrest during the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle in 1999, the Sheriff’s Office largely has limited its deputies from policing mass demonstrations in the city. The department also hasn’t kept up with the latest training or equipment for demonstration policing despite repeated requests from deputies, said Lurry, who estimated it would cost about $250,000 to train and equip a team of about 100 deputies.
The issue resurfaced late last spring, after some deputies were approved to assist Seattle officers during demonstrations in which police clashed with protesters downtown and on Capitol Hill. By early June, Johanknecht had directed deputies that the Sheriff’s Office would no longer “get involved” in protest policing, Lurry said.
On June 2, the guild filed a complaint with L&I, contending the Sheriff’s Office’s lack of proper training and equipment for demonstrations potentially put more than 700 deputies at risk. Among its contentions, the guild said the few deputies who’ve been outfitted have received outdated or inadequate equipment, including helmets issued for the WTO protests more than 20 years ago or military reissue items intended for war, not civil demonstrations.
In August, L&I issued four violations against the Sheriff’s Office — including two deemed “serious” that drew $2,000 fines each — for failing to properly equip and train deputies for “protest events which may require a significant response to protect life and property,” including crowd-control events involving “threats, attacks, large-scale civil disturbances, or other occurrences requiring a significant public safety response.”
After the Sheriff’s Office appealed, a hearing examiner upheld L&I’s findings in late October.
The Sheriff’s Office has since paid its fines, an L&I spokesperson said this week.
In his statement this week, Meyer, the sheriff’s spokesperson, blamed “prior administrations” for failing to prioritize demonstration management and contended that when she was elected in 2017, Johanknecht “recognized the need to enhance the training and equipment our members need so they can, in any circumstance, safely serve our communities.”
“Sheriff Johanknecht will continue to seek financial resources necessary to enhance the training and equipment for all members,” Meyer said.
While agreeing the problem isn’t new, Lurry said it has only persisted under Johanknecht’s “foot-dragging.”
“I guess there’s been a committee formed,” Lurry said, “but we still have not seen any training or any equipment.”
Racial-injustice protests and other political demonstrations emerged throughout Washington in the late spring, including demonstrations in Bellevue and Seattle that drew large police responses. At times, Seattle police have received help for responding to protests from the Washington National Guard, the State Patrol, Bellevue and Redmond police departments and North Sound SWAT.
During “the first few days” of the protests, the Sheriff’s Office also “backfilled for patrol and handled 911 calls,” Seattle police spokesperson Sgt. Randy Huserik said.
Seattle’s policing response also has drawn harsh criticism from civil-rights groups, local politicians and others, with lawsuits, legal claims and hundreds of citizen complaints about alleged excessive force and indiscriminate use of tear gas, pepper spray and other crowd control weapons.
The department and the Seattle Police Officers Guild largely have defended officers’ response as appropriate amid protests that sometimes have been marred by violence and property destruction.
Although most King County sheriff’s deputies are assigned outside the city, some specialty units, including Metro Police, often work and patrol in Seattle, Lurry said. Last year, deputies also responded to protests in Sammamish and Woodinville, including one during which a Trump supporter pulled a gun on counterprotesters, he said.
“When these things erupt, we can find ourselves in the middle of it very quickly,” Lurry said. “All we’re asking for is a few helmets and some training before someone gets hurt.”