King County passed a law last year prohibiting local officials from sharing people’s personal information with federal immigration agents, unless the agents have a judicial warrant.
The 15-page ordinance included one line that, it turns out, was crucial to making sure immigration enforcement didn’t get the information: “The executive shall ensure that all King County employees and agents receive appropriate training on the implementation of the provisions of this section.”
But that training never happened. So county employees never updated an old online jail database and the King County Sheriff’s Office didn’t change its practices.
And Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers accessed private information on the jail database more than 1,000 times after the law passed, while the sheriff’s office sent ICE 25 unredacted case files, both in violation of county code.
“How did this happen?” said Megan Ko, one of the authors of a county auditor’s report made public on Tuesday that uncovered the jail data disclosures. “They were not trained how to comply. Code requires that the executive train agencies, but does not specify when to train agencies.”
Ko said the county’s public health department was trained on data collection and privacy to comply with the new law, but little was done at other agencies, including the jail and the sheriff’s office.
King County Executive Dow Constantine and Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht both declined interview requests regarding the failure to provide training and to comply with the law.
In a prepared statement, Constantine directed blame for the jail data disclosures at William Hayes, the former director of the county jails who retired last year, for not being vigilant enough “despite asserting to my leadership team that they were in fact doing so.”
“I understand the anger and disappointment many must feel, and I fully share it,” Constantine said in an emailed statement. “For this breach of trust, I am truly sorry.”
Deputy County Executive Rachel Smith said Hayes made assertions about developing and implementing new policies, and said it was likely an oversight that the policies were never put in place.
“Conversations were happening, implementation and policy was not,” Smith said.
Hayes did not return a voicemail message Thursday.
John Diaz, a former Seattle police chief, took over as interim director of the county jails in April.
ICE was granted online access to the jail database — which contains information including addresses, citizenship and place of birth that is not publicly available — 10 years ago. But the agency’s logins and passwords were never deactivated when county law changed.
“The county has had a commitment to protecting privacy written into code since 1996,” said Laina Poon, another author of the auditor’s report. “The problem is no one has taken charge of accountability to that commitment.”
Constantine, in his response to the auditor’s report, wrote that the county didn’t know of any instances in which ICE agents used the improperly accessed data to detain or deport county residents.
But Smith acknowledged on Thursday that it’s unlikely the county would have been notified if its data had been used for deportations. Deportation proceedings frequently begin with an arrest and jail booking, when ICE searches through names and goes after someone who may be here illegally.
Smith also said that there’s likely no way of determining whose data ICE collected through the database.
Since the county learned of the auditor’s findings in April, it has disabled all the old ICE accounts, rendered citizenship and place of birth data nonaccessible and is no longer even asking about citizenship information at county jails, Smith said.
The sheriff’s office, unlike the county jails, sent information to ICE upon request.
ICE requested information from the sheriff’s office 25 times from when the law was passed through May 2019, and the staff complied with the requests without determining whether they were related to civil immigration enforcement, as is required by the county law.
On Thursday, the sheriff’s office released heavily redacted copies of its correspondence with ICE and the records it provided — mostly arrest reports.
ICE requests came from as near as Seattle and as far away as Vermont. The requests came from ICE officials with titles like “criminal targeting specialist,” “inspector” and “deportation officer.”
“Today, I tell you that we failed in our duty to follow King County Code,” Johanknecht said in an emailed statement. “We should have determined whether these requests were for civil immigration enforcement before releasing these documents. We did not.”
She said that the releases appear to be human error and that from now on every request from immigration officials will be reviewed by a team leader and a manager to ensure it’s not for civil immigration enforcement.
The Metropolitan King County Council passed the legislation 6-3 last year, and several council members expressed their frustration with the county executive — without naming Constantine — at both a legislative hearing on Tuesday and a media event organized by King County Democrats on Thursday.
“It’s disappointing to pass laws,” said Council Chair Rod Dembowski, “then to just see it not implemented. A lot of attention was paid to this law.”
Councilmember Dave Upthegrove said he told Constantine that he’d be supportive if Constantine decided to hold individuals accountable for the foul-up, including, potentially, firings.
“I talk to community members about how they shouldn’t hesitate to interact with law enforcement because we protect their privacy, that we adopted a policy, and I think this hurts that,” said Upthegrove, who represents south King County. “If someone has made a mistake this egregious, there needs to be accountability. This was a violation of the county code.”
Seattle City Councilmember M. Lorena González said that passing laws is “just half the battle.”
“We have an obligation to make sure these laws are implemented consistently,” she said. “This was a failure by county officials to not keep watch of their own house.”