King County Executive Dow Constantine has urged county Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht to “consider retiring immediately,” after Johanknecht defended the actions of a sheriff’s deputy who shot and killed a high school student in 2017.
Last month, shortly after the Sheriff’s Office announced a $5 million settlement in the shooting death of 20-year-old Tommy Le, Johanknecht sent an internal email to staff saying the settlement is “not a reflection of how I view the actions” of the deputy who shot Le, Cesar Molina.
Several County Council members have since called for Johanknecht to resign.
Constantine has now all but joined them.
“I have spoken with Sheriff Johanknecht about the challenges that she and the Sheriff’s Office face,” Constantine wrote in a letter to a constituent recently, which was provided to The Seattle Times. “In light of these challenges, and the shift of authority and responsibility from the Sheriff to the Executive office in less than nine months, I urged her to consider retiring immediately and allowing the people of King County and the law enforcement community to instead focus on the important transition ahead.”
Constantine’s office confirmed that the letter was authentic.
King County voters, last year, voted to make sheriff an appointed, rather than elected position. Johanknecht’s term is scheduled to expire in early 2022, at which point the county executive would appoint a sheriff, to be confirmed by the Metropolitan King County Council.
Constantine’s letter makes it clear that Johanknecht will be a long shot to be appointed.
“I join you in frustration and disappointment by Sheriff Johanknecht’s written reaction to the settlement,” he wrote. “We are in the process of hearing from the public and defining what the region wants in its next Sheriff, and this work will accelerate no matter how Sheriff Johanknecht decides to proceed.”
Calls for Johanknecht to step down have escalated as outraged community members responded to recent incidents involving discipline — or the perceived lack of it — in two recent high-profile sheriff’s cases: one involving Johanknecht’s email following the $5 million settlement in Le’s death, and the other her decision to discipline a captain with a one-day suspension for a social media comment that referred to a group of Black teens in Brooklyn who assaulted and stole from a girl as “animals.”
The families of Le and 17-year-old MiChance Dunlap-Gittens, who was shot in the back by sheriff’s deputies in 2017 during a botched sting operation in Des Moines, are among those who have called for Johanknecht to step down. County Councilmembers Joe McDermott, Dave Upthegrove and Girmay Zahilay also have called for or supported calls for Johanknecht’s resignation.
Johanknecht has said she has no plans on resigning.
In the Le email, sent to every deputy in the Sheriff’s Office the same day the county announced the settlement of the family’s lawsuit, Johanknecht commiserated with and defended the deputy involved, Molina, whom an investigation determined had shot Le twice in the back after Le reportedly ran at deputies with what turned out to be a ballpoint pen.
Dunlap-Gittens’ parents had sued after their son was killed while in the company of another teenager detectives had mistakenly concluded was involved in a homicide involving a fellow police officer’s stepson. They settled their case for $2.25 million.
They were outraged to learn that one of the deputies involved in that operation, Todd Miller, had been promoted to captain and recently disciplined by the sheriff with a single day off without pay for making the offensive social media post about the Black teens.
Those are only the most recent incidents that have shaken Johanknecht’s office and led to the calls for her resignation: In the past 18 months, a pair of sharply critical outside reports commissioned by the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight also pointed to lackluster and troubled internal investigations into the shootings of both Le and Dunlap-Gittens.