King County would switch to an appointed rather than an elected sheriff and the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) would be granted subpoena power to investigate the Sheriff’s Office, under two new proposals under consideration in the Metropolitan King County Council.
Both measures, which were recommended after an 18-month review, aim to increase accountability and oversight of the Sheriff’s Office. Both changes, if approved by the County Council in the coming weeks, would be placed on the November ballot for voter approval.
The County Council also unanimously passed a motion asking the Sheriff’s Office to respond, in detail, to each of 43 recommendations made by OLEO in a February review of the killing of a teenager by sheriff’s deputies in 2017. That review raised questions about the thoroughness of the internal investigation that exonerated the deputies.
“I really just want justice, I want answers to each one of those recommendations,” said Alexis Dunlap, the mother of the Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, the boy shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies in 2017.
Sheriff has been an elected position in King County since 1996, when voters approved the switch. Previously, the sheriff was appointed by the county executive. The Charter Review Commission, a 23-member citizen board chaired by former County Executive Ron Sims and former County Councilmember Louise Miller, overwhelmingly recommended returning the sheriff to an appointed position, arguing that it would improve the public’s ability to hold the sheriff accountable between elections.
The commission wrote that the vast majority of people who elect the sheriff don’t live in the areas the sheriff directly polices — unincorporated areas of the county and 13 smaller cities that don’t have their own police forces.
“If the sheriff is appointed, the elected County Executive and nine councilmembers, six of whom represent unincorporated areas, would significantly improve proportional representation and voter accountability regarding the selection of the sheriff,” the commission wrote.
The commission also said that electing a law enforcement officer politicizes the office and can disrupt the department. It noted that current Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht was a deputy running against her boss when she was elected in 2017, which caused divisions within the department.
This, the commission noted, is the rule, not the exception. Every sheriff elected since 1996 has come from within the department, because of residency requirements and political advantages for internal candidates.
When the previous sheriff, John Urquhart, faced rape accusations, the commission noted, neither the county executive nor the council could initiate any investigations or take any actions.
“During the sheriff’s term, there are few if any accountability mechanisms within county government,” the commission wrote.
It also recommended changing the county charter to give the OLEO the power to subpoena material and testimony as it investigates complaints against the Sheriff’s Office. Without that power, the body overseeing county law enforcement can request information but has no ability to require it.
OLEO was established in 2006, but its oversight powers have been disputed ever since, as the King County Police Officers Guild, the union that represents sheriff’s deputies and sergeants, has objected, arguing that OLEO’s civilian oversight needs to be collectively bargained.
“These are important reforms that can help improve our justice system,” Councilmember Rod Dembowski said. “OLEO must have the power it needs to conduct its mission. A decade of opposition to its authority needs to end, and end now.”
King County Executive Dow Constantine said he supports giving OLEO subpoena power. He said he thought making sheriff an elected position was a mistake in 1996, but that switching back needs to be part of the “current community conversation.”
Johanknecht has opposed giving OLEO subpoena power. Her office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
County code gives OLEO subpoena power, but because it’s subject to collectively bargaining, the office has never, in practice, had subpoena power.
Voters reapproved OLEO in 2015, and the County Council passed more authorizing legislation in 2017, but the office still has not been able to use subpoenas, because of the union’s objections.
Even if the County Council approves subpoena power this year, and voters approve it in November, it’s no guarantee that OLEO will actually get the power.
“This proposed amendment does not guarantee that the unions representing public safety employees will agree to subpoena power,” the commission wrote. But, it said, if no agreement can be reached with the union and the dispute goes to an arbitrator, the change would be a powerful piece of evidence.
“A decade is long enough to wait for effective civilian oversight,” the commission wrote.