Relatives of several Black men and a teenager shot and killed in recent years by local law enforcement officers on Friday called for King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht’s resignation for what they described as “her failure to treat racism with the seriousness it requires.”
The group, which sought support from King County Executive Dow Constantine and the Metropolitan King County Council, also demanded that sheriff’s Capt. Todd Miller, who was involved in one of the fatal shootings, be fired for describing a group of Black teens as “animals” in a social media post last year.
After an internal investigation, Johanknecht suspended Miller for one day.
Alexis Dunlap Francois, whose 17-year-old son, Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, was fatally shot in 2017, said during a news conference outside the King County Administration Building in downtown Seattle that Johanknecht “slaps us in the face by pretending to care and support our families.”
“I want her to resign. I want Todd Miller to be fired, not promoted,” Dunlap Francois said. Her son was killed during a botched sting operation aimed at arresting another youth for a homicide. It was later determined that neither teen was involved. The sting was led by then-sergeant Miller, who is white and has since attained the rank of captain.
Johanknecht wasn’t sheriff at the time of the shooting, but she recently suspended Miller for a day without pay after a colleague complained about a “very offensive and racist” Facebook post Miller made last April. By contrast, another deputy, Mike Brown, was recently fired for inappropriate social media posts.
Johanknecht, in a statement Friday, said “discipline is a complicated matter,” adding there were “distinct differences in the pattern of social media behavior” displayed by Brown’s series of posts and Miller’s single post.
“To be clear, I do not condone the behavior of either of these members,” the statement said. “However I must operate within the parameters of KCSO [King County Sheriff’s Office] policies, County policy, collective bargaining agreements and make disciplinary decisions that can be successfully defended should the matter go to binding arbitration.“
Her statement added: “I am the duly elected Sheriff until 12/31/2021 and I will not resign.”
Constantine’s office, in its own statement, noted the executive “was not involved in the investigation of Capt. Miller and has asked the Sheriff’s Office to share its reasoning for the level of discipline against him.”
The executive’s statement also recognized Johanknecht’s intention to remain sheriff through her term’s end, adding Constantine will appoint a new sheriff then.
Council members did not respond to messages seeking comment Friday. In a Facebook post, Councilmember Dave Upthegrove wrote he was proud of the “moms for speaking up. I stand with them and support their demands.”
Joining Dunlap Francois was Sonia Joseph, the mother of Giovonn Joseph-McDade, who was killed by a Kent police officer in 2017; Fred Thomas, whose unarmed son, Leonard Thomas, was killed by a Lakewood police officer in 2013 while holding his son; and Devitta Briscoe, the sister of Che Taylor, who was killed by two Seattle officers in 2016.
Friday’s event was organized by Not this Time — an anti-police violence group headed by Briscoe, the acting director, and co-founded by Taylor’s brother, Andrè Taylor.
“We have no trust that fairness is being applied” in discipline, Briscoe said. “And what that does is it further devalues Black life. It also further erodes our trust in law enforcement.”
Johanknecht has failed to follow through on a key promise to Dunlap-Gittens’ family that would require deputies to use body and dash cameras, Dunlap Francois said. The promise came last May as part of the county’s $2.25 million settlement of the family’s federal civil rights lawsuit over the teen’s death.
“Mitzi has promised to support … reform, and it’s all a lie,” Dunlap Francois said.
The group also demanded policy reforms at the Sheriff’s Office “to ensure that applicants and personnel are thoroughly screened for racism and other biases,” Briscoe said.
The calls for Johanknecht’s ouster come amid frustration within her own ranks. In recent months, several current and former employees who left during her tenure have criticized her as an inept manager who largely has been absent from the job for months.
Johanknecht’s statement described such criticisms as “false accusations” that are part of “a pressure campaign” from labor groups upset because she has “held their members to a high standard.”
Elected in 2017, Johanknecht upset incumbent Sheriff John Urquhart, a blunt-talking disciplinarian who was besieged by his own scandals during the campaign. After taking office, Johanknecht alienated some high-ranking commanders who’d supported her bid, and several have since left the department.
With nine months remaining on her term, Johanknecht is a lame duck who will be replaced by an appointed sheriff come January. Voters passed a measure in November to eliminate the elected sheriff’s position in favor of one picked by the executive.
In late January, Johanknecht sent an email to employees to dispel a rumor she was “in negotiation with Executive Constantine for an early departure.”
“I want you to hear it directly from me: this is patently untrue,” she said in the email, which was obtained by The Seattle Times.
Constantine’s office said Friday he’s had “many conversations” with Johanknecht about “the transition of the sheriff from an elected to an appointed position.” Next month, he’ll begin “a community engagement process” to find the next sheriff.
In February, Johanknecht announced she’d fired Brown, a longtime detective, for making inappropriate social media posts, including an “All Lives Splatter” meme on the day a driver hit two protesters on Interstate 5. One of them, Summer Taylor, later died.
In stark contrast, Johanknecht suspended Miller for a day after he reposted on his Facebook page a photo and a news story about a group of Black teens accused of beating and stealing the sneakers off a 15-year-old girl with the comment: “Animals. This is what the inner city gives us these days.”
In a written explanation to Brown, Johanknecht said the disparity in discipline between his and Miller’s case partly was “because there was not the outrage and extremely harmful, negative and damaging effect to the Sheriff’s Office that your posts and comments created locally and nationwide.”
Miller insisted during an internal investigation that his remark was not racist but intended to comment about the “socio-economic issues existing in American inner cities” that drive crime.
Joseph, with tears streaming down her face Friday, said she was “outraged” that Miller wasn’t fired. “Our children are not animals,” she said. “These cops that have this mentality should not be policing us.”
Thomas, who co-founded the police reform group Next Steps Washington after his son was killed, added: “Capt. Miller’s thoughts and feelings are obvious to all of us. He’s a racist … Is this someone you want with a badge, wearing a uniform, having a gun to shoot and kill at will?”
For more than two years after Dunlap-Gittens’ shooting, the Sheriff’s Office’s official statement said Dunlap-Gittens had fired at officers, which was false. Miller, who fired the first shot, also claimed the fleeing teenager had displayed a gun.
But questions over a flawed and inadequate investigation, conflicting statements by the deputies and witnesses, and evidence that Dunlap-Gittens had both arms full of liquor bottles and could not have reached for a weapon as Miller claimed, raised doubts about the official account of the interaction.
“It shouldn’t have happened, he didn’t do anything,” Dunlap Francois said of her son’s death. “I’m angry and I demand justice.“