By Paul Kiefer
County and state lawmakers continue to join the chorus calling for King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht to resign for comments she made in a department-wide email about the killing of 20-year-old Tommy Le by a sheriff’s deputy in Burien in 2017. On Thursday, state senator Joe Nguyen (D-34, West Seattle) became the latest elected official to add his voice, joining three county council members.
Johanknecht sent the email at the heart of lawmakers’ criticisms only hours after a March 24 press conference at which Le’s family announced a $5 million settlement with King County for their son’s death. The email’s contents were first reported by the South Seattle Emerald.
In the department-wide email, Johanknecht shared her “appreciation of the difficulty” of Deputy Cesar Molina’s decision to shoot and kill Le, who was unarmed. Johanknecht also wrote that the county’s settlement with Le’s family—which implied some admission of wrongdoing by her department—was “not a reflection of how [Johanknecht] view[s] the actions of Deputy Molina in this incident.”
In a statement on March 26, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott said that the sheriff’s email “was, in the most charitable light one might muster, disrespectful to the young person who was killed, to his family and our entire community.”
Both Le’s shooting and the internal investigation into his death have sparked scrutiny by police accountability advocates and lawmakers. A critical review of the investigation by the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight in September 2020 identified an array of flaws in the internal review into Le’s death, which an internal review board determined to be justified in 2018. Those flaws included the internal investigators’ failure to note that two of the six shots that Molina fired hit Le in the back, contradicting Molina’s assertion that he fired at Le in self-defense. Though Johanknecht was not sheriff at the time of Le’s death, she assumed leadership of the department during the investigation into the incident.
The publication of Johanknecht’s email spurred King County Councilmember Joe McDermott to join Le’s family in calling for the sheriff’s resignation; in a statement on March 26, McDermott said that the email “was, in the most charitable light one might muster, disrespectful to the young person who was killed, to his family and our entire community.”
Johanknecht maintains that she has no plans to resign, but as the county’s transition from an elected sheriff to an appointed sheriff in 2022 looms on the horizon, her future with the department may be limited.
McDermott’s call for Johanknecht’s resignation was preceded by that of County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove, who quietly expressed his opposition to Johanknecht in a March 12 Facebook post in which he shared his support for relatives of Black victims of police shootings in King County and called for Johanknecht to step down for “her failure to treat racism with the seriousness it requires.”
On Wednesday, Councilmember Girmay Zahilay became the third council member to call for Johanknecht’s resignation. In a series of tweets, Zahilay wrote that a sheriff’s comments were evidence that she presents a barrier to police accountability and “do not reflect the values we need in that office.” Sen. Nguyen, who voiced his support for Johanknecht’s resignation on Twitter a day later, called the email “dehumanizing, disrespectful [and] dismissive.”
In an interview with KIRO on Tuesday, Johanknecht maintained that she has no plans to resign, but as the county’s transition from an elected sheriff to an appointed sheriff in 2022 looms on the horizon, her future with the department may be limited. As the council and a committee of stakeholders prepare to consider candidates, McDermott believes that the controversy surrounding Johanknecht will color the process of identifying candidates for the sheriff’s position. “The issues raised by calls for Sheriff Johanknecht’s resignation are vital to public safety, law enforcement and community trust, so they would have always been vital parts of how we appoint a head of the public safety department,” he told PubliCola. “But the email put a spotlight on them.”
Neither the council nor the stakeholder group has assembled a list of possible candidates, and Johanknecht has not yet indicated whether she intends to put her name in the ring. If she did step forward, McDermott said he wouldn’t give her any consideration. “I have lost faith in her leadership,” he said. “I wouldn’t be willing to entertain her as a candidate.”
If Johanknecht were to resign under mounting pressure, the timing of her decision could have notable repercussions. Resigning before May 15—the last day on which candidates for office can file in King County—would force the county to hold a special election in November for a sheriff who would serve until the office becomes an appointed position on January 1, 2022. If Johanknecht resigned after May 15, she would be replaced by an interim sheriff until King County Executive Dow Constantine appoints a new sheriff.