The Metropolitan King County Council on Tuesday voted 5-4 to not extend the contract of Deborah Jacobs, the civilian director of the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), after praising her work but saying workplace issues have soured her tenure there.
The council voted to begin a national search to replace Jacobs, and appointed the office’s current deputy director, Adrienne Wat, as interim director. The council said Jacobs would stay on until Sept. 15.
Jacobs has protested her removal as director during the search, saying the county’s charter and normal procedure would have her continue to act as director while the county finds her replacement, since she was not terminated. Councilmember Rod Dembowski, who opposed Jacobs’ leaving, questioned the process and said he believed the council had “mixed discipline with reappointment, and I think they should be separate.”
The decision to remove Jacobs came after an independent investigation found that Jacobs had used inappropriate and discriminatory language on the job, and made some on her staff feel uncomfortable. A council subcommittee already voted to recommend she not be appointed to another four-year term.
The investigation concluded that Jacobs engaged in discrimination or inappropriate or unwelcome conduct in five instances, and that five others were either unfounded or could not be proven by a preponderance of the evidence. It concluded that her conduct was inconsistent with her role as a supervisor and violated county policies.
Among the findings is that Jacobs once commented that she could not see anyone but a white male in the position of deputy director of OLEO, and purportedly said that a woman in the office might not fit in the job because she had children. In the end, Adrienne Wat — her interim successor — was promoted by Jacobs into that role.
Jacobs believes she has been the target of a concerted effort by some council members and the King County Police Officer’s Guild, which has been harshly critical of Jacobs and has fought many of her proposed reforms.
Council chair Claudia Balducci, who led the effort to not reappoint Jacobs to the post, praised Jacobs’ tenure in the difficult job and said real progress has been made toward police accountability. During her tenure, Jacobs has worked to help revise the county’s use-of-force policy, commissioned independent reviews of critical incidents and worked closely with the families of people killed by law enforcement.
The four council members who supported Jacobs on Tuesday were Dembowski, Dave Upthegrove, Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Joe McDermott.
The council’s intent to remove Jacobs has drawn strong criticism from other professionals in the field of police oversight. Susan Hutson, president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), urged the council to reappoint Jacobs to the post. Hutson noted that Jacobs has faced vehement opposition from the police officer’s guild and the sheriff.
“At a time when members of the public are urgently and consistently calling for increased transparency and accountability for law enforcement, we ask that you consider the message it may send to oust Ms. Jacobs from the OLEO director post,” Hutson wrote. “Ms. Jacobs has stood out for her talent, commitment and collegiality among oversight practitioners nationwide.”
Jacobs had filed a $2 million tort claim against the county alleging she has been the victim of gender and sex discrimination from within the King County Sheriff’s Office since taking the director’s job in 2016.
In a statement Tuesday, Jacobs said she believes that she has made “significant progress” toward police accountability in the past four years, and noted that “Standing up to those who hold power is never easy, but always necessary.”
She expressed thanks to her supporters, including members of the council “who stood up for me in the face of political pressure.”
“My greatest hope is that OLEO will not lose momentum on its critical work and will thrive moving forward,” she said, urging the council and other elected leaders to carve out “greater protections for police oversight and those who carry out this critical work.”
Jacobs’ ouster comes on the eve of her presentation to the council of a blistering outside review of the way the King County Sheriff’s Office investigated the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Tommy Le by a deputy in 2017.
Jacobs commissioned a similar report earlier this year into the 2017 shooting of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, which accused the sheriff’s office of letting reforms it suggested “die on the vine.” The release of that report prompted a guild grievance against Jacobs.
Balducci, in introducing her motion not to renew Jacobs’ tenure at OLEO, said she was aware of the controversy, particularly at a time when police accountability and violence is forefront in the minds of many in the community.
“I don’t relish this discussion, I didn’t ask for it to be before us at this time, but it is what it is,” she said, adding that the council needs to have “the utmost faith and confidence in the director of this critical office.”
“I don’t want to understate the progress that has been made,” she said. “Or the work ahead of us.”
Councilmember Upthegrove opposed the motion, praising the tenacity that Jacobs has brought to a stressful and difficult job. He said the “mistakes that were made” by Jacobs in her comments and treatment of staff “aren’t enough to lead me to draw the conclusion” that she is unfit to hold the post.
“Law enforcement make mistakes and bad judgment calls that are much more serious,” he said. “We can set a high bar, but I would hope to see the same level of accountability for our officers.”
In her claim against the county, Jacobs said she faced “bullying and intimidation by law enforcement officials and campaigns to undermine me personally as well as the work of law enforcement oversight.”