King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht offered to cut a deal last June to ensure the ouster of the county’s civilian police watchdog if the deputies union agreed to forgo bargaining a pilot program requiring them to wear body cameras, according to interviews and records.
The quid pro quo offer, delivered in a phone call by a lawyer for the sheriff to an attorney for the King County Police Officers Guild, conveyed that Johanknecht would work with willing Metropolitan King County Council members to thwart the reappointment of Deborah Jacobs, then-director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, according to union officials familiar with the call.
The union rejected the offer, Detective Mike “Manny” Mansanarez, the guild’s president, said in a recent interview.
“We smelled a rat,” Mansanarez said.
Guild officials later learned a council-commissioned investigation of Jacobs over an internal workplace complaint already had been completed with findings against her, Mansanarez said.
“So, [the Sheriff’s Office] basically came to us with a backdoor offer which we declined, and then we found out they weren’t going to renew her contract anyway,” Mansanarez said. “That’s just downright dirty. They were going to pull the guild into this and blame us for her [contract] not getting renewed.”
Johanknecht, through a spokesperson Friday, disputed the guild’s claim, arguing her office “played no part in Ms. Jacobs’ failure to be reappointed as OLEO director,” a civilian who is appointed by the council. “The [Sheriff’s Office] has no authority to affect the council’s employment decisions.”
King County Sheriff’s Sgt. Tim Meyers added the office had searched its “records for communications … and finds nothing related to this assertion.”
Erin Overbey, the sheriff’s legal counsel, did not respond to requests for comment this week, noting in an email “others are working on a response.”
The vote to end Jacobs’ tenure came weeks after the July completion of an investigation into her management style that found a string of inappropriate workplace comments that led a divided council to end her tenure as director after a four-year contract. A draft copy of the investigation, dated June 9, indicates a version was sent to the council two weeks before the sheriff’s purported offer to the guild.
Several key council members, including President Claudia Balducci, who led efforts to oust Jacobs, did not respond to messages left seeking comment this week. A spokesperson for the council said in an email Friday that because of pending legal claims filed by Jacobs, it would be “improper” for the council to comment.
After Mansanarez said the union declined Johanknecht’s offer, he quickly informed Jacobs about it.
In turn, Jacobs made a flurry of phone calls June 23 to the county’s ombudsman, attorneys and labor officials to inquire about whether Johanknecht’s actions posed legal or ethical violations. An attorney for OLEO informed her he didn’t immediately see any, according to an instant message Jacobs sent the same day to her top assistant.
About 10 weeks later, the council voted 5-4 not to renew her contract and Jacobs was out of a job. Meanwhile, the sheriff’s proposed body camera pilot program is still in negotiations with the guild, and the Sheriff’s Office remains one of the largest police agencies in the state that doesn’t require video recordings of its officers’ actions.
Derrick Isackson, the guild’s attorney who fielded what he called “the ridiculous proposition,” confirmed Mansanarez’s account this week. He declined to say who made the offer.
“There was the hint of a quid pro quo,” Isackson said. “We wanted no part in it.”
Jacobs, who has since filed a $10 million tort claim against the county alleging discrimination and other claims, said in an email this week the matter “says something positive about my effectiveness in office that Sheriff Johanknecht actively pursued a backroom deal to get rid of me.
“But the bigger picture here is that the people of King County deserve a police department with a culture of accountability and an oversight office that is welcomed, rather than stonewalled,” said Jacobs, who remains active in police accountability issues.
Whether the sheriff’s offer was genuine or not, a proposal to conspire with the deputies’ union to get rid of Jacobs raises questions about King County’s commitment to policing reforms and accountability efforts, said Susan Hutson, independent police monitor in New Orleans and president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement.
“We’ve seen examples of retaliation against accountability organizations in our profession, but this takes it to a whole other level,” Hutson said. “It’s really stunning.”
Lame duck leader
Revelations about the purported offer mark the latest in a string of problems facing the embattled, single-term sheriff during her final months in office.
Johanknecht, already a lame duck after voters last year approved a measure making the elected sheriff’s job an appointed position come January, increasingly has faced calls for her resignation or retirement, including by some County Council members, Executive Dow Constantine and by relatives of several Black males killed by local police in recent months.
The sheriff has insisted she won’t resign and intends to serve out the remainder of her term through year’s end.
As her tenure staggers to its end, the issue of body and dash cameras has become a symbol to critics of what they view as Johanknecht’s failed leadership.
The sheriff promised last May to require deputies to use the cameras as part of the county’s $2.25 million settlement of a federal civil rights lawsuit with the family of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens — a Black teenager shot dead by deputies during a botched sting operation in 2017.
Nearly a year later, neither deputies nor their vehicles are equipped with the cameras.
Mansanarez, who disputes that the guild has thwarted implementation of body cameras and said an agreement to launch a pilot program is imminent, contends the sheriff’s office has unfairly portrayed his union as the chokepoint.
“We’re not against body cameras,” he said. “We were in negotiations over them months ago, then, [the Sheriff’s Office] just dropped it and we’d not heard anything about it until [a few] weeks ago.
“What it always comes down to is the cost, no one wants to pay the cost,” he said. “But that’s not on us.”
The sheriff’s offer to work with willing council members to oust Jacobs last June apparently sought to avoid negotiations about body cameras by proposing to help eliminate a common problem: Jacobs’ reappointment as the county’s civilian police watchdog.
During her four-year tenure, which expired June 15, Jacobs repeatedly clashed with both the sheriff and the guild over use-of-force reforms and other deputy accountability issues, including the issuance of scathing outside reports on two troubling shootings: Dunlap-Gittens, and the 2017 death of Tommy Le, whose family’s lawsuit against the sheriff’s office was settled last month for $5 million.
Jacobs initially approached The Seattle Times last summer with records about the sheriff’s attempted deal, but Mansanarez declined comment then.
At the time, the guild had a labor grievance pending against Jacobs filed in February 2020 in a failed attempt to stop the release of the Dunlap-Gittens report. The union, which contended the review’s identification of deputies and use of an outside investigator violated its contract, dropped the grievance after the council voted not to reappoint Jacobs.
Mansanarez said withdrawing the grievance had nothing to do with the sheriff’s offer. “It wasn’t a tit-for-tat,” he said. “The grievance was against Deborah, not the Sheriff’s Office. Once she was gone, the issue was dead in the water.”
He added he didn’t initially comment about the matter because he’d been notified Jacobs had listed him as a witness in her legal claim. “I’ve not heard anything or been served with anything since, so Derrick [the guild’s attorney] said I can speak freely now,” he said.
Contemporaneous messages and phone records provided by Jacobs support the guild’s account.
In a thread of instant messages exchanged June 23 between Jacobs and OLEO’s then-deputy director, Adrienne Wat, Jacobs wrote at 4:42 p.m.: “Manny just called and told me” that a lawyer for the sheriff had “offered that if the guild would accept full body cam implementation then KCSO would work with two willing Councilmembers to make sure I don’t get reappointed.”
“oh geez,” Wat replied minutes later. “That’s shady. Are you going to do anything with that information?”
Jacobs responded she’d contacted Sasha Alessi, a county labor relations official, who she wrote “thought there might be an ethics issue” and suggested she call OLEO’s legal adviser, Mike Sinsky.
A few minutes later, Jacobs advised Wat that “Mike said no there there, not surprised.”
A telephone message seeking comment from Wat was not returned.
Sinsky, a deputy prosecutor, said in an email this week that as OLEO’s legal counsel, his conversation with Jacobs is subject to attorney-client privilege and could not be disclosed.
The county ombudsman and a spokesperson for the labor relations office confirmed this week Jacobs contacted them about the matter last summer.
Records indicate the council had commissioned an independent investigation into Jacobs’ workplace behavior in February 2020, with draft findings completed in June and the final report not completed until July 6, about two weeks after the guild informed Jacobs of the sheriff’s purported offer. The council released the report publicly in August, concluding Jacobs had used inappropriate and discriminatory language on the job and made some staff uncomfortable.
Wat has since been named interim OLEO director pending a national search for Jacobs’ replacement.
“The whole thing was preposterous, quite frankly,” Isackson, the union attorney, said. “It bothered me. That’s why we went to Deborah.”