Chyna Lockhart held her handmade “Black Lives Matter” sign at an “I Can’t Breathe” rally outside Auburn City Hall on a mild evening in early June. Speakers whose loved ones had been killed by police shared their experiences on the building’s steps. As Muckleshoot Tribal members broke into dance in the courtyard, Lockhart was struck by the intimacy and peacefulness of the small rally.

An Auburn resident, Lockhart felt similarly about a Kent protest she later attended where Mayor Dana Ralph took questions from the protesters.

Lockhart was galvanized by the civil rights protests throughout South King County last summer, in large part, because she wants to leave the area a better place for her biracial 2-year-old son to grow up.

But while the smaller demonstrations she attended in Auburn and Kent fostered a sense of closeness, they also lacked the publicity and longevity of rallies in neighboring Seattle that drew thousands of activists and nationwide coverage. As summer faded into fall, Lockhart’s activism came to a standstill when the smaller demonstrations in South King County waned. She believes that fatal police shootings in surrounding suburbs have not received as much attention as deaths in Seattle.

She’s not alone. Amid public outcry for police accountability, impacted families and activists argue that cases of fatal use of force in South King County have largely gone overlooked by the public.

While differences in crime rates, poverty levels and demographics can factor into how different parts of the region are policed, the numbers clearly show that the majority of killings by police in King County occur in the south. Out of the 43 killings by police in Seattle and surrounding King County since 2016, 24 of those cases occurred in South King County at the hands of city agencies or the King County Sheriff’s Office, according to a Seattle Times analysis.

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Impacted families say that a lack of oversight for the agencies policing South King County has led to cases that escaped public and media scrutiny. While a 2012 federal consent decree in Seattle prompted officer de-escalation training and the use of body-worn cameras, fewer mechanisms exist in the suburbs to hold officers accountable. As a result, community groups and politicians are calling for statewide reform of investigations into police killings and additional training for law enforcement.

Disproportionate data

Of the 43 people killed countywide by police officers over the past four years, 11 were killed by the Seattle Police Department — less than half of the number killed during the same time period in South King County. That area, which includes more than a dozen cities including Renton, Kent, Federal Way, Tukwila and Auburn, makes up about a third of the county’s population, but accounted for 56 percent of the county’s police killings.

So far in 2020, eight people have been killed in King County by police: three in South King County, two in Seattle, and three to the east or north of the city.

Out of the nine people killed by law enforcement in King County last year, two were by Seattle police, while six were in South King County by officers of the sheriff or city agencies. In 2018, two out of seven people killed by police were in South King County, and two were in Seattle. Seven out of 11 killings by police took place in South King County in 2017. The year prior, six out of eight fatal use of force cases took place in South King County, while the other two were by Seattle police.

Between 2016 and 2020, about 56% of the deaths were of white people, 23% were Black, 12% were Asian and 5% each were listed as Native American or other, according to The Seattle Times’ analysis. The total count for Latino deaths is inconclusive, since medical examiners list the ethnicity as white. In King County, where 7% of the population is Black and 1% is Indigenous, they were killed by police at the highest rates.

Comparing Seattle to South King County is not apples to apples: South King County has the greatest diversity, holds the highest concentration of foreign-language speakers, and has the county’s highest percentage of people below the poverty line.

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As South King County law enforcement interacts with that vulnerable population, Lockhart said, she believes officers too often resort to using force.

“The police in these communities know that they’re dealing with people who are unhoused, are addicts or have mental health issues,” Lockhart said. “I don’t think they care to police as thoroughly as they should.”

Elaine Simons, the foster mother of Jesse Sarey, who was killed by an Auburn police officer in May 2019, said Sarey was living unsheltered in Kent at the time of his death. She believes officials dismissed him as “just another homeless person.”

Meanwhile, the officer who killed him, Jeffrey Nelson, was charged with second-degree murder but was not initially arrested or required to provide bail. Long before he met Sarey, Nelson had a history of excessive use of force, amounting to 65 documented incidents between 2011 to 2018. Several days before Nelson was charged with Sarey’s murder, Auburn settled a $1.25 million lawsuit over his fatal shooting of 25-year-old Isaiah Obet in 2017. The first person Nelson killed was Brian Scaman, shot in the head during a 2011 traffic stop, according to the lawsuit.

“(Nelson) wasn’t being treated like a normal human charged with murder,” said Simons, who teaches art at the King County Children and Family Justice Center in Seattle’s Central District. She sees children who’ve committed similar crimes with million-dollar bails. “He was almost being treated with privilege because he’s a police officer.”

Elaine Simons holds back tears while talking about her foster son, Jesse Sarey, as she is comforted by Sonia Joseph, right, during the Next Steps Rally in June at Judkins Park, Seattle. Sarey was killed in 2019 by Auburn police Officer Jeffrey Nelson, who has been involved in three fatal shootings while on duty. Joseph’s son, Giovonn Joseph-McDade, was killed by Kent police in 2017. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Oversight mechanisms

Until the passage of voter-approved Initiative 940, a 2018 police accountability law, the main recourse for families with loved ones killed by police were civil lawsuits. Between 2005 to 2014, only one officer in the state was charged out of 213 fatal police shootings, according to a 2015 Seattle Times investigation. The county’s inquest process — a fact-finding inquiry on officer-involved deaths that may include the impacted family, a panel and witnesses — is on hold due to legal challenges from the Sheriff’s Office and some South King County cities, with nearly three dozen cases dating back to 2017 potentially in the pipeline.

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I-940 removed the legal requirement that a police officer act with “malice” to be criminally prosecuted for deadly use of force. However, the law has weaknesses, a recent Seattle Times investigation showed, and lacks power to hold law enforcement agencies responsible for complying with it.

The new law has been used once so far to charge an officer in a person’s death, when King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg on Aug. 20 charged Nelson in Sarey’s killing. Sarey was the third civilian Nelson had fatally shot in the line of duty. Nelson has pleaded not guilty in the case.

On the evening of May 31, 2019, Nelson responded to a disorderly conduct call that described Sarey as kicking property and throwing objects at cars. A physical altercation between the two ended with Nelson fatally shooting Sarey. The 26-year-old died at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center later that night.

In the 17 months since his death, Sarey’s foster mom has observed the legislative process of enhancing police oversight from the margins. Recently, Simons has applied her knowledge to the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, a group of impacted families, activists, policymakers and lobbyists who present bills on police accountability to state legislators.

Her family has benefited from other impacted families’ hard work toward the passage of I-940. Unlike other cases among Simons’ newfound community, her foster son’s case will go to court.

“This is for every single family seeking a conviction,” Simons said about Nelson’s charges. Still, she worries that Sarey’s case will be drawn out due to the coronavirus pandemic, and that public attention on the case may dwindle in the meantime.

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Community members stand to acknowledge the death of Jesse Sarey as his foster mom, Elaine Simons, speaks at a June rally in Seattle that gathered families affected by police violence, elected officials and community and business leaders. (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Sarey’s case, like many police shootings in South King County, was investigated by the Valley Independent Investigation Team (VIIT), composed of detectives from law enforcement agencies in the area. The department involved in the death does not participate in the investigation.

The team formed in 2012 and has investigated 50 deaths that occurred in police custody, according to Commander David Leibman, who leads the Renton Police Department Investigations Division. Out of the 50 cases investigated, 43 involved shootings by officers, while the others included deaths in local jails and natural deaths in police custody.

Most of the deaths that the team investigated were concentrated in Kent, where there were 15, followed by 12 in Federal Way.

The team was conceived to formalize guidelines on investigating fatal use of force, since departments were already collaborating without standard protocols. The Snohomish County Multiple Agency Response Team, composed of law enforcement agencies throughout the county and the Washington State Patrol, served as a model for VIIT.

The team does not determine the culpability of an officer; they prepare an independent report of their findings that is submitted to the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

“The number of shootings that we have in any given year is completely unpredictable,” said Leibman. “Each of the circumstances that led to these actions are completely different from one another,” he added. Some of the fatal use of force cases were a result of hostage situations or domestic disturbances.

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Interdepartmental teams such as the VIIT are becoming more common throughout the nation, said Chris Burbank, vice president of New York-based nonprofit Law Enforcement Strategy for Center for Policing Equity. Such teams allow agencies to share the burden of investigation, since police use of force cases are very resource-intensive, he added.

“But what it lacks is the outside civilian community participation in the process,” said Burbank. “Because it still is the cops investigating the cops.”

Burbank, a former Salt Lake City police chief, said he’s generally not seen as much police oversight in suburban areas as in larger cities — civilian review boards are less common in smaller cities or counties and police tend to investigate themselves. King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight can review the Sheriff’s Office’s internal investigations of police shootings, but can’t currently conduct its own independent investigations.

The greatest determinant in an agency’s use of force practices are the department’s own policies, Burbank said: “Do you have in place policies that prevent or limit that sort of activity, or do you have policies that allow for abuses to continue?”

For instance, the police officer who killed George Floyd in Minneapolis last spring had displayed misconduct in the past while he continued to be promoted and awarded commendations. “That then becomes the culture, the norm, the precedence, the practice of the police department,” Burbank said.

Public focus

Still, during this summer’s local protests, the focus was largely on Seattle rather than the suburban agencies where the majority of recent police shootings have occurred. Demonstrations were held periodically in South King County cities, but they were much smaller.

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Rose Davis, the sister of Muckleshoot tribal member Renee Davis who was fatally shot by King County sheriff’s deputies in 2016, said that light is rarely shed on deaths in South King County. Anticipating they could get more news coverage and awareness, her family decided to hold their first rally for Davis in Seattle, rather than on the Muckleshoot Reservation near Auburn where she was killed.

Rose Davis, center, participates in a march for her sister Renee Davis, a pregnant mother of three and member of the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe who was killed along with her unborn child in October 2016. Two King County sheriff’s deputies fatally shot Davis in her own bed during a welfare check in her home on the Muckleshoot reservation.  (Bettina Hansen / The Seattle Times)

Katrina Johnson, whose cousin Charleena Lyles was killed by Seattle police in 2017, does not believe that “the police investigating the police is what the community is after,” Johnson said. 

One reason why police shootings may get more attention in Seattle is that information about the shootings is more accessible to the public because of government oversight mechanisms such as the Office of Police Accountability and the Community Police Commission, which were put into place as a result of the 2012 federal consent decree, Johnson said.

Katrina Johnson, cousin of Charleena Lyles, attends the March for Accountability: Defund SPD & Reinvest in Communities event in June. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

SPD also releases body camera footage from shootings within 72 hours on its website, while most smaller departments in the county don’t use body cameras or require a public disclosure request to release the video.

Johnson points to the governor’s task force for Independent Investigations of Police Use of Force as a way to usher in transparency and restore the community’s trust in law enforcement.

The task force has met twice a month since July, with the goal of reforming the investigation process by reviewing systems used elsewhere, such as in Ontario, and learning about the history of race and policing.

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As a member of the task force that convened during the summer, Johnson works with law enforcement and other community members with the goal of ensuring that future investigations are trauma-informed, credible, and pursue racial equity, among other principles.

Davis believes that cultural training and community involvement could help prevent fatal police shootings. For instance, if officers interact with families at community events, “they might not be so apprehensive or scared … if they recognize them or know that they have a family,” said Davis.

She would like officers to receive mental health training and to have a strategic plan before conducting wellness checks, which is when her sister was fatally shot by police. Davis would also like law enforcement stationed on reservations to understand the history of the community they police, and the intergenerational trauma families on reservations often experience.

“Maybe that would open their minds and their hearts to understand and to care more,” she said.

Community involvement may become mandatory for South King County law enforcement in the future. State Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, has convened two work groups to address issues around police use of force in the wake of recent global protests.

Drawing on her background as a social worker, Orwall held a mental health crisis response work group with community agencies and advocates, as well as Kent and Des Moines police chiefs. Their goal is to create a coordinated mental health response system, with designated crisis responders paired with officers.

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“One of the really good things that could come out of this movement is to rethink how we support people experiencing mental health issues,” Orwall said.

Another work group she spearheaded plans to create a training program to help officers — many of whom don’t reside in the areas they police — become familiar with the community through internships and mentorships.

In the meantime, Johnson believes that it’s a pivotal moment for the public to hold elected officials and police agencies accountable.

“It is past time for community to stand up because you never know whether your loved one will be next or yourself,” said Johnson.

Seattle Times staff reporter Sara Jean Green contributed to this report.