Accusations have defined the nonpartisan race between Sheriff John Urquhart and Major Mitzi Johanknecht, both vying to lead a law-enforcement agency of 1,100 employees.
It’s one of nastiest political races in King County in years.
Outspoken Sheriff John Urquhart has been accused of mishandling the job and mistreating employees by his opponent, Mitzi Johanknecht, a nearly 33-year veteran of the Sheriff’s Office now serving as the major in charge of the Southwest Precinct in Burien.
Urquhart disputes the attacks, saying they stem from tough new standards he has put in place since taking office more than four years ago. He’s fired 22 deputies, he says, and held commanders who weren’t used to scrutiny more accountable.
“I did what I said I was going to do,” Urquhart said in an interview in which he cited his efforts to “dismantle the blue wall.”
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“I brought accountability, transparency to the Sheriff’s Office,” he said.
Johanknecht says she also believes in accountability and would have fired some of the same people. But the actions have gone too far, she says, noting she supported Urquhart and his goals when he first ran for sheriff.
“What I found over the last five years is that those things haven’t come to fruition,” she said in an interview. “Instead, there’s fear within the organization and within the ranks.”
The sharp words have defined the Nov. 7, nonpartisan race to lead the agency’s 1,100 employees and oversee service to unincorporated King County, Metro and Sound Transit agencies, the Muckleshoot Indian Tribe, King County International Airport/Boeing Field and 10 cities and two towns.
Underscoring the stakes, Urquhart had raised nearly $322,000, in contributions as of Tuesday, including more than $294,000 from his own pocket to fund his campaign, according to state disclosure records.
Johanknecht had raised more than $123,000, including more than $63,000 of her own money.
Overshadowed has been the candidates’ personal histories and positions on current issues, such as body cameras and safe-injection sites for drug users.
Urquhart, 69, who has been with the Sheriff’s Office for nearly 30 years, many as its media spokesman, became sheriff after a special election for the open seat in 2012. He faced no challengers in the regular election for the seat in 2013, winning a four-year term.
Johanknecht, 58, joined the Sheriff’s Office in 1985. She became a captain in 1998 and has spent time in supervisory roles in field operations, patrol operations, technical services and special-operations divisions. She has led two precincts and was the first full-time female deputy to lead TAC-30, the Sheriff’s Office’s SWAT team, a position to which she was appointed by Urquhart.
Both have deep roots in the Seattle area, including schooling at the University of Washington. Urquhart lives on Mercer Island with his wife; Johanknecht in West Seattle with her wife.
They agree that deputies should be equipped with body cameras as soon as possible; Urquhart wants to launch a pilot project next year. Whoever wins will have to persuade the Metropolitan King County Council to provide funding.
Both want a lot more crisis-intervention training and to equip deputies with shotgun bean bags to add to the mix of less-lethal weapons — pepper spray and Tasers — that they now carry.
Each points to their early support for Initiative 940, a proposed statewide measure that would make it easier to prosecute police over the alleged misuse of deadly force and require more mental-health and de-escalation training. Urquhart also wants one agency, possibly the state Attorney General’s Office, to independently investigate shootings by police statewide.
Neither believes it is appropriate to ask people their immigration status, noting that would have a chilling impact on crime reporting.
“That affects everybody, not just that community, if people are afraid to report crimes,” Urquhart says.
Urquhart supports safe-injection sites for drug users in cities where there is support, saying he is willing to gauge how the sites work. But they shouldn’t be imposed on communities, he says.
Johanknecht opposes such sites, saying the emphasis should be on equipping more deputies with overdose medication and getting people into treatment programs — not sending confusing messages about drug enforcement.
Levels of support
Urquhart contends Johanknecht is the “hand-picked” choice of a small group in the Sheriff’s Office, primarily captains who know they won’t be promoted or have found themselves entangled in internal investigations.
Johanknecht says Urquhart is wrong, responding that leaders throughout the organization support her.
She says Urquhart hasn’t followed his own standards, citing what she calls his mishandling of an allegation that he raped a woman years ago.
Urquhart didn’t refer the allegation for an internal investigation, saying the FBI already had found the woman’s story lacked credibility.
No criminal charges were filed. But Johanknecht says Urquhart should have allowed the internal process to unfold.
“The policies and procedures of the department must be followed by the sheriff, too,” she said. “The sheriff sets the tenor and tone for the expectations of everybody else in the office.”
Urquhart acknowledges he made a mistake, even though similar discretion had been applied to others in the past.
“I was wrong,” he said. “I should have seen the political ramifications. I was wrong, because it affected our credibility.”
In the future
Going forward, Urquhart says, he wants to build off his emphasis on reducing crime and the fear of crime. He points to reductions in overall crimes — 2012 to 2013: minus 3.3 percent; 2013 to 2014: minus 0.9 percent; 2014 to 2015: minus 9.7 percent; and 2015 to 2016: minus 4.5 percent — in all but the 10 cities that contract for services. The cities, which set their own budgets and priorities, tabulate their own statistics.
He also wants to assign a captain as night-watch commander instead of a sergeant to ensure a high-ranking deputy is working during evening hours, and to build on successes of the domestic-violence unit by adding investigators. He also would reinstate the cold-case squad to investigate unsolved homicides and rape cases.
Johanknecht says she is “very excited about the opportunity to listen and be informed by people.”
At a time when law enforcement is at a crossroads with communities, she says, she wants to focus on making people of all backgrounds feel safe and to treat them with dignity and respect.
Others in her age range have retired, she says, but “for me that’s a challenge.”
She also wants to create a community-outreach and recruiting section, along with advisory councils to help, among other things, in devising strategic plans.
She also would develop leadership and career-path programs; bolster DUI enforcement; and focus more on cybercrime.
Urquhart, who earns $187,000 annually, says he is willing to use his own money to fund his campaign because of what he describes as an important race that will define the Sheriff’s Office.
“I have no doubt my opponent will take the Sheriff’s Office backwards if elected,” he said. “I am willing to commit personal funds to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Further, Urquhart says, he doesn’t devote much time to fundraising because he has an office to run and campaigning to do.
“I don’t have time to dial-for-dollars and haven’t,” he said, explaining he prefers attending community meetings to raising money.
While campaign spending is needed to reach voters — including TV ads — voters are smart enough to make informed decisions, he says.
Asked if he was concerned about the appearance of buying votes, Urquhart pointed to his broad support. He lists nearly 200 elected officials and leaders who have endorsed him, including all nine county-council members and temporary Seattle Mayor Tim Burgess.
In his 2012 race, Urquhart’s total contributions of more than $183,000 included more than $149,000 of his own money.
Johanknecht, who earns about $156,000 annually, says she and her wife have refinanced their home to contribute to the campaign.
Calling the race important, she says she is facing an incumbent with substantial name recognition. “While I can’t match his personal spending, it’s important to me that people know I’m personally invested,” she said.
Of buying votes, Johanknecht responds that she has 300 individual donors who have contributed $4 to $1,000. “That is broad support in a race like this.
“I am proud that we have raised $70,000 dollars from over 300 individual donors,” Johanknecht said.
Since her career has been focused on work and not building a public profile, she says, spending money on TV advertising is one more way to reach voters on top of attending events.
Among some 100 named supporters, Johanknecht lists Ron Sims, a former King County executive, and U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle.