By Paul Kiefer
On Tuesday, a majority of the Metropolitan King County Council’s Employment and Administration Committee (which includes all nine council members) voted not to extend the contract of Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) Director Deborah Jacobs, as well as to accept the findings of an independent investigation into allegations that Jacobs made a series of inappropriate or discriminatory comments to her staff over the course of her four years with the county.
Council chair Claudia Balducci announced that she would introduce the proposal ending Jacobs’ contract in a press release on Monday evening. In her statement, Balducci praised Jacobs’ work as OLEO director, writing that she “has worked diligently to fulfill OLEO’s mission to hold the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) accountable for providing fair and just police services.” However, Balducci added that based on the findings of an outside investigation into claims made against Jacobs by OLEO staff, the office would “benefit from new leadership.”
The council hired the law firm Ogden, Murphy and Wallace to conduct the investigation earlier this year after a number of employees accused her of making inappropriate comments. The investigating attorney, Karen Sutherland, concluded that Jacobs had engaged in conduct “inconsistent” with council policies against harassment and discrimination in five instances, and found that three other complaints were unfounded or unsupported by evidence.
Sutherland added that she found no evidence of “criminal misconduct” by Jacobs.
The five complaints Sutherland found convincing included an incident in which Jacobs apparently dismissed an applicant for a public relations position as “just a white male” (hiring decisions based on race are illegal in Washington), and one in which she said she could only imagine a white man as OLEO deputy director.
Two other claims were connected to non-work social events. In one case, Jacobs said she could not invite any of her employees to her annual women-only Roe v. Wade anniversary party so as not to exclude a male employee. In another, Jacobs said she would not invite her employees to a social event so as not to single out an employee who was single. In the fifth and final instance, Jacobs reportedly praised an employee for his “race and size,” claiming it helped him gain the trust of sheriff’s officers. That employee told Sutherland that he’s struggled with weight-related insecurity for much of his life, but added that he didn’t feel comfortable telling Jacobs that her comments had been hurtful.
In a response to the investigation she sent to council members in July, Jacobs acknowledged that she had “used some terms that are not appropriate even when used casually and with no ill intent,” adding that in response to the complaints, she has “actively sought to alter [her] language choices.”
However, Jacobs said some of the findings of the investigation took her comments out of context. For example, Jacobs wrote she made her comment that OLEO could only be headed by a white man “with a sense of irony and deep frustration.” As evidence, she pointed to the fact that she promoted Adrienne Wat, an Asian woman, to the position not long after she made the comment.
And she accused the council of retaliating against her for being an aggressive champion of accountability in the face of strong resistance from the King County Sheriff’s office. On Monday, Jacobs filed a $2 million tort claim (a prerequisite for a suit against a government agency) against King County, alleging that she has faced gender discrimination from within the sheriff’s office since her appointment to lead OLEO in 2016. Jacobs repeatedly clashed with both former sheriff John Urquhart and his successor, current Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht, over the the department’s resistance to several accountability measures, including body cameras and use-of-force investigations. Similar conflicts with the Sheriff’s Department also led to the resignation of the first OLEO director, Charles Gaither, in 2014.
Jacobs is scheduled to present a report on a high-profile shooting by King County Sheriff’s officers—the 2017 killing of 20-year-old Tommy Le in Burien—on September 2, the same day when the full council will vote on the motion to remove her. She and her allies, including some families of victims of police shootings, have expressed concern that the committee’s decision not to renew her contract is actually intended to prevent the release of details about the Le killing and others.
In an interview after the hearing on Tuesday, Balducci praised Jacobs’ tenacity as an investigator, and said she doesn’t want to see OLEO soften its approach after Jacobs is gone. “I completely believe we can have an OLEO that is good on investigations, good on policy, aggressive in the best sense,” she said, “and that we can also have a work environment that is supportive of the people who do the work.”
However, not all of the committee members shared Balducci’s perspective. Council member Rod Dembowski, for instance, expressed concern that the decision not to reappoint Jacobs could leave OLEO “rudderless or hobbled during a critical time” while the council conducts a nationwide search for her replacement. Council member Dave Upthegrove also expressed concern that the council was holding Jacobs to an unreasonable standard, commenting that he hoped “to see the day when law enforcement officers are held to the same high standards to which we hold our civilian staff.”