The Metropolitan King County Council on Tuesday voted to significantly scale back the autonomy of the county sheriff, moving to make the position appointed, rather than elected, and to give the County Council the ability to reduce the scope of the Sheriff’s Office.
Both changes, approved by the County Council on 6-3 and 6-2 votes, will be sent to voters as separate ballot measures in November.
Voters could choose to make the sheriff appointed, rather than elected. They could choose to let the County Council spell out the specific duties of the sheriff. They could do one or the other; both; or neither.
Councilmember Girmay Zahilay framed the changes, particularly giving the council the power to define the sheriff’s duties, as a response to the protests against police brutality and systemic racism that have roiled the country for nearly two months.
“The largest movement in American history, nationally and locally,” Zahilay said, “they have all been saying one central message and that is that we need a new system of public safety.
“That kind of big, bold fundamental change I don’t think we can rely on just a sheriff’s department that’s independently elected that we can’t truly oversee,” he said.
Other council members spoke of having mental health professionals and social workers respond to many emergency calls, rather than armed law enforcement.
“It just seems very right on point with some of the key demands we’re hearing in this moment, that we rethink how we provide public safety,” Council Chair Claudia Balducci said. “A civilian response to civilian problems.”
Councilmembers Kathy Lambert and Pete von Reichbauer voted against both measures and Councilmember Reagan Dunn voted against the appointed sheriff measure and was excused for the other. The council is nonpartisan, but all three “no” votes have identified as Republicans in the past, while all six “yes” votes have identified as Democrats.
From 1969 until 1996, the King County executive appointed the county sheriff. Since then, voters have chosen the sheriff every four years. But earlier this year, King County’s Charter Review Commission, a 23-member citizen board chaired by former County Executive Ron Sims and former County Councilmember Louise Miller, overwhelmingly recommended returning the sheriff to an appointed position, arguing that it would improve the public’s ability to hold the sheriff accountable between elections.
The review commission wrote that the sheriff is elected by all King County voters, but the vast majority of King County voters aren’t generally policed by the sheriff, who directly oversees unincorporated areas and a dozen smaller cities and towns. The commission also said that electing a sheriff can politicize a law enforcement position and that residency requirements and political realities make it virtually impossible for someone outside the sheriff’s office to rise to the top spot.
Every sheriff since 1996 has been elected from within the department.
Councilmember Rod Dembowski, the prime sponsor, said appointing the sheriff would instead allow for a nationwide search “to chose the nation’s very best law enforcement officer.”
“It may be someone who doesn’t want to be a politician,” Dembowski said.
If voters approve the change in November, Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht, elected in 2017, would serve the remainder of her four-year term and would then be eligible to be appointed as sheriff. Johanknecht lobbied, unsuccessfully, against both ordinances.
“I do not think it is ever a good idea to take away a vote from the people,” Johanknecht said in a prepared statement. “I don’t believe an appointed Sheriff is a more ‘accountable’ Sheriff. An appointed Sheriff is beholden only to the Executive and the 9 members of the County Council and their personal political interests.”
The change would also mean the county executive, not the sheriff, represents the county in future bargaining with the sheriff’s deputies union.
While the review commission recommended that change after more than a year of study, the other potential changes to the Sheriff’s Office approved Tuesday emerged publicly only in the last few weeks.
Currently, the duties of the Sheriff’s Office are established by state law. They include arresting people who break the law, executing warrants and court orders and suppressing “riots, unlawful assemblies and insurrections.”
But if voters approve, the County Council would be given the power to establish the sheriff’s duties. The County Council would be able to decrease the sheriff’s duties or combine the office with another department or agency.
Several of the smaller cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services objected to the changes, saying they weren’t consulted.
The ordinance “could have a tremendous impact,” wrote Covington City Manager Regan Bolli, the chair of the county’s Police Oversight Committee, in a letter to the County Council.
“However, due to the short notice between introduction and proposed action, we do not have the time necessary to analyze the effects enacting this ordinance could have, good or bad, on our residents,” Bolli wrote.
The mayor and City Council of Maple Valley wrote to the County Council asking them to vote no until contract cities can “fully understand the impacts of the proposed legislation.”
But Zahilay said the underlying issues, and the desire to re-envision law enforcement, are long-standing.
“This is a structural issue that we are trying to address,” Zahilay said. “This is not something that sprung up overnight.”