Members of a Metropolitan King County Council committee voted 7-2 on Tuesday to not extend the contract of Deborah Jacobs, the civilian director of the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), after adopting the findings of an investigation that said Jacobs used discriminatory language with her staff.
The vote came after an hourlong closed session by members of the council’s Employment and Administration Committee, who praised Jacobs’ work on police reform and accountability, but found behavior outlined in an independent personnel investigation unacceptable and in violation of county policies.
“This is not an easy decision to make,” said council chair Claudia Balducci, who surprised Jacobs on Monday with a news release announcing she would seek to end Jacobs’ employment with the county by asking her colleagues not to extend her four-year contract, which had expired in June.
That release was apparently issued after the council learned that 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.
“This includes bullying and intimidation by law enforcement officials and campaigns to undermine me personally as well as the work of law enforcement oversight,” Jacobs wrote in the claim, which was filed Monday in neighboring Pierce County. Tort claims are a required step before someone can file a lawsuit against a government entity.
The decision still must be approved by the full Metropolitan King County Council, which is scheduled to meet to consider the committee’s recommendation on Sept. 2 — the same day that Jacobs hopes to present the council with an independent systemic review of the 2017 officer-involved shooting of a 20-year-old Burien student, Tommy Le.
A similar independent review commissioned by Jacobs of another controversial shooting by King County sheriff’s deputies — the 2017 death of 17-year-old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens — sparked outrage in the Sheriff’s Office, were the King County Police Officer’s Guild filed a grievance to attempt to stop its release. The county settled a lawsuit with the boy’s parents for $2.25 million within months of the report’s release.
Jacobs believes concerns over the pending Tommy Le report and other use-of-force investigations may be driving an effort to see her gone. Jeffrey Campiche, one of the lawyers representing the boy’s family in a federal civil-rights lawsuit pending against the county, said he was worried about the same thing.
“We are concerned that King County will terminate Deborah Jacobs to suppress the report on King County’s cover up of the truth about the killing of Tommy Le,” Campiche wrote in an email on Tuesday.
Jacobs has repeatedly clashed with Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht, her staff and the police union over a variety of accountability issues, including the union’s ongoing resistance to the use of body cameras, and use of force issues.
In a statement late Tuesday, Johanknecht said she was “proud of several collaborative projects” conducted in partnership with Jacobs, including strengthening the department’s use-of-force policies, training programs and pursuit protocols.
“Director Jacobs was an integral part of these projects and we thank her for the positive impact she had on the King County Sheriff’s Office,” Johanknecht wrote.
“Basically, the Council is responding to a sexist smear campaign and protecting themselves instead of me,” Jacobs said in an email. “Despite knowing what an impossible dynamic my job presents, and that I have made great strides in addressing the legitimate issues raised in the investigation.”
At the same time, Jacobs in a detailed response to the council’s investigation, acknowledged failed communications and “poor word choices.”
The council ordered an investigation into the management of OLEO and hired the law firm of Ogden Murphy Wallace to look into complaints about offensive or insensitive statements Jacobs purportedly made to members of her staff or law enforcement officials.
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. None of the instances rose to the level of criminal misconduct, the investigation found.
Among the findings is that Jacobs once commented that she could not see anyone but a white male in 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, an Asian woman, Adrienne Wat, was promoted into that role, Jacobs said.
The investigation also concluded that Jacobs discouraged the idea of hiring a white male for a community outreach position.
The investigators concluded that Jacobs told members of her staff she could not invite any of them to a private, annual “Roe v. Wade celebration” she holds outside work every year because she didn’t want any men at the party — there was a man on the OLEO staff at the time — and that she couldn’t just invite the women. The investigation described those comments as “unwelcome.”
In another instance, the investigation said Jacobs told employees that she was reluctant to have team-building social meetings outside of work because one of her male employees did not have a partner, and she worried that would single him out for unwanted attention.
The investigation also concluded that she praised one of her employees for his “race and size” because she believed those traits helped him gain acceptance from the male-dominated law enforcement community. The man told the investigator that he had grown up heavyset and those comments made him uncomfortable.
The employee said he never brought the issue up with Jacobs out of concern over how she would react.
Jacob acknowledged the gist of this conversation, but said it was taken out of context. “The fact that I observed the advantages that males (especially white males) have in dealing with males in law enforcement settings does not mean that I condone such dynamics — in fact, it means exactly the opposite,” Jacobs wrote in her response.
Some allegations were unfounded or inconclusive, according to the report. For example, Jacobs was accused of calling an unnamed former King County sheriff a “blowhard” while pretending to perform a sexual act. Jacobs admitted using the term, but denied making a sexual gesture. The investigation said the allegation was inconclusive.
“Let’s be honest, when you read the investigation, you’re going to see that some allegations about things came out of my mouth that were unprofessional,” Jacobs told The Seattle Times. “Some are accurate and regrettable, some need context, and some are patently untrue.”
But she said none justify the council not renewing her contract and she urged the council to look at her record as a reformer before taking action.
“The issues raised in the Investigation Report require that I exercise more care around communication with my co-workers and that I ensure that they feel comfortable addressing concerns with me,” Jacobs said. “I can and will make these adjustments, and they are already underway.”
While the investigation has been going on for months, and the report was first presented to the council in June, Jacobs did not learn that the council intended to end her employment until Monday, when Balducci issued the news release stating she would move to not reappoint Jacobs.
In July, the existence of the investigation was leaked to right-wing AM radio broadcaster Jason Rantz, a move Jacobs believes is evidence of an orchestrated effort to undermine her reform work.
By the time Tuesday’s Employment and Administration Committee convened in executive session, Jacobs had rallied dozens of letters of support and condemnation of the council’s action, including a letter signed by the directors or chairs of all three accountability agencies at the Seattle Police Department, who wrote that Jacobs was a “valued and knowledgeable colleague” known for “asking the hard questions.”
Her supporters also include the families and relatives of numerous victims of police violence, more than a dozen community activists and the county’s chief medical examiner.