The Metropolitan King County Council has provided more powers to the independent civilian office that keeps tabs on the King County Sheriff’s Office. But the ordinance still faces a steep hurdle.
After operating for years with little teeth, the independent civilian office that keeps tabs on the King County Sheriff’s Office has been handed new powers to screen internal investigations and even open its own inquiries.
In a 9-0 vote, the Metropolitan King County Council passed a sweeping ordinance Monday that boosts the authority of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO).
But the ordinance still faces a steep hurdle: It is subject to bargaining with the powerful and reticent King County Police Officers Guild, which represents 670 deputies and sergeants who work in the county’s unincorporated areas or contract cities such as Shoreline, Sammamish and Bothell.
“I am hopeful that we will make further progress toward making OLEO the most effective police oversight in the U.S.,” Councilmember Larry Gossett, prime sponsor of the legislation, said in a statement.
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Guild President Steve Eggert, as is his usual practice, did not respond to a request for comment.
The guild almost certainly will take a close look at a provision that would give OLEO the authority to open concurrent, or parallel, internal investigations into misconduct allegations brought against a deputy — or conduct its own inquiries even if the sheriff’s office has not opened an investigation.
OLEO Director Deborah Jacobs — who was hired last year after county voters approved a charter measure to clarify and strengthen OLEO’s role — says her office would only use the power in rare and serious instances, such as when a conflict of interest exists in the sheriff’s office.
But, as written, there are no absolute constraints on when or why OLEO could open an investigation.
Sheriff John Urquhart, who voiced his overall support for the ordinance before its passage, said he couldn’t comment on specific wording because it now will be part of confidential negotiations with the guild.
Under the ordinance, Urquhart wouldn’t be bound by OLEO’s findings and disciplinary decisions would remain in his hands.
But OLEO would have a bully pulpit, with the ability to shine a light on its findings.
“I don’t consider that a small thing,” Jacobs said. “It’s a big thing.”
The ordinance represents the most significant attempt to enhance OLEO’s authority since the office began operations in 2011.
For much of that time, OLEO has been beset by confusion over its reach, turmoil in its leadership and restrictions resulting from collective bargaining. Its “bread-and-butter work,” Jacobs said, has been limited to after-the-fact reviews of internal investigations and findings to determine if they were properly handled, along with systemic audits and reviews.
The office is different from the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) because OLEO is an external civilian body, separate from the sheriff’s office. The OPA is an independent, civilian-led office within the SPD that conducts internal investigations.
At Monday’s council meeting, representatives of a wide variety of groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington, spoke forcefully in favor of the ordinance, saying it would give citizens a voice and align the county with best policing practices.
“Let’s do real work around police accountability,” Sili Savusa, a member of the Citizens’ Committee on Independent Oversight, an OLEO advisory panel, told the council before it voted.
Among the changes in the ordinance is a provision allowing OLEO, for the first time, to review all complaints against deputies, at the intake level, to ensure they are being properly screened at the front end.
“We will be able to make recommendations but not be the deciders,” Jacobs said, adding, “This is a huge change.”
Another piece requires the sheriff to provide time for OLEO’s advice before adopting policies regarding “office policies, rules, procedures or general orders” unless there is an urgent need. If the latter occurs, the change would be subject to OLEO recommendations following implementation.
OLEO would also gain the power to subpoena people and documents as part of its investigations.
Jacobs said she is not at liberty to discuss the collective-bargaining talks.
But as she gears up for the confidential negotiations, she will be straddling a philosophical line between her current job and a lengthy past working for the ACLU.
“I am deeply committed to labor, and during my 20 years at the ACLU, I was involved in defending the workplace rights of police officers on many occasions,” Jacobs wrote in a Tuesday email. “I believe that engaging in independent oversight is also a means to protect the interests of law enforcement officers, including by helping ensure the integrity of their departments.”
Independent police oversight, Jacobs added, is a fundamental American right to review government, like access to public records.
“As such, the idea of limiting independent police oversight based on collective bargaining is problematic,” she wrote. “We should never trade away or curb the fundamental right to public review of government. The voters of King County expect to see the vision of empowered oversight of the King County Sheriff’s Office fulfilled, and the way to achieve that is for the County to secure collective bargaining agreements that align with full implementation of the ordinance passed yesterday.”