King County voters have two separate chances this November to strip power from the county sheriff — by making the position appointed rather than elected and by giving the Metropolitan King County Council the ability to alter or reduce the sheriff’s duties.
The two choices, on the ballot as King County Charter Amendments No. 5 and No. 6, are related but entirely separate.
Voters could choose to switch to an appointed, rather than an elected sheriff. Or they could choose to give the County Council authority over the sheriff’s office. They could do neither. Or they could do both.
The move to make the sheriff appointed rather than elected was suggested by the county’s Charter Review Commission, after a two-year study of the issue. If it succeeds, King County would be the only county in Washington to appoint, rather than elect, its sheriff.
The move to give authority over the sheriff to the County Council emerged only this summer — following the waves of protests over systemic racism and police brutality — as a necessary first step in making some of the changes that protesters have demanded.
“These have the real potential to allow the movement that we’ve seen in America and here in King County this summer to be brought into reality, to bring reforms forward and to take down some barriers to reform,” said King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski, one of the leaders of the campaign supporting the changes.
The County Council is officially nonpartisan, but the six members who have identified as Democrats all supported the proposed changes to the sheriff’s office, while the three members who have identified as Republicans opposed them.
Campaign spending has been lopsided. The shoestring campaign supporting the changes had raised about $6,000, as of Oct. 20, with more than half of that coming from Dembowski himself.
In contrast, the campaign opposing the changes had raised more than $200,000, as of Oct. 20, funded almost entirely by police unions. The union that represents King County sheriff’s deputies donated $165,000. The Seattle Police Officers Guild gave $10,000. So did a national union, the American Police Officer’s Guild. Unions representing Washington State Patrol troopers and Everett police officers also donated.
Opponents of the two measures have tried to link them to the ongoing debate in Seattle — where voters are more progressive than the county as a whole — over policing and cutting police budgets.
“We don’t need a bunch of downtown Seattle politicians, without meaningful criminal-justice experience further limiting the authority of our law-enforcement leaders in King County,” said County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, who opposes both measures. “We’ve seen how that ends in Seattle.”
Amendment No. 5: Elected or Appointed?
From 1968 through 1996, the King County sheriff was appointed by the elected county executive and confirmed by the elected County Council. In 1996, voters chose to give themselves direct control over the county’s top law-enforcement officer, and the sheriff has been elected ever since.
The Charter Review Commission, a 23-member citizen board chaired by former King 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.
An appointed sheriff could be quickly removed by the County Council if they do something wrong, supporters say, but with an elected sheriff, voters have to wait until the next election. Supporters argue that electing a sheriff can politicize the office.
Supporters also say that electing the sheriff limits the county’s ability to find the best possible candidate. The county can’t conduct a nationwide search for a sheriff, because the sheriff would already have to live here to run for office. Supporters point out that, since the county moved to an elected sheriff, every new elected sheriff has come from within the sheriff’s office.
“You can hire a law-enforcement professional who’s maybe not willing to be a politician, Dembowski said. “We think we’ll have a better, more responsive, more progressive law-enforcement department that reflects community values.”
Opponents say that voters should retain control over the sheriff. The County Council and executive already have budgetary oversight on the sheriff, they say. Allowing them to choose the sheriff as well, they say, would give them too much power over law enforcement.
Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht said the claim that the County Council could quickly replace a sheriff accused of wrongdoing falls flat. Johanknecht was elected in 2017, after the then-sheriff faced rape accusations. But, she said, all nine members of the County Council at the time still endorsed the incumbent sheriff.
“I don’t think we should ever take the right to vote away from King County voters,” Johanknecht said.
Amendment No. 6: Duties of the sheriff
Currently, the King County Charter, the county’s version of a constitution, says the sheriff’s office shall not be “combined with any other executive department or administrative office and shall not have its duties decreased by the county council.”
This amendment would delete that language, giving the County Council the ability to reduce the sheriff’s duties. It would also make the King County executive, rather than the sheriff, responsible for contract negotiations with the sheriff’s deputies union. It would not, however, allow the council to abolish the sheriff’s department.
Currently, when you call 911 in King County, there are essentially two options: police or fire, Dembowski said. Supporters would like to look at a third option, one that could deploy mental-health professionals to people in crisis. And being able to trim the sheriff’s duties is a necessary first step in getting there, they said.
“When we send armed police officers to every situation, that’s how we can end up with people, especially Black and brown people, being harmed by government unnecessarily,” said County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay. “This would remove certain constitutional barriers in front of the King County Council and allow us to bring about that future of public safety.”
Opponents say the amendment is a precursor to cutting the sheriff’s funding. They say it’s an overreaction to real concerns people have about policing.
Johanknecht says she supports moving some duties — things like mental-health crises and dealing with homelessness — away from law enforcement, but nothing is spelled out in the proposed charter amendment. She worries about civilian responders being sent into potentially dangerous situations, in answering calls.
“Nothing’s been offered by the council, they haven’t said what their plans are, what they’re wanting do to,” she said. “Leaving that information to be determined at a future date would really bother me.”