By Paul Kiefer
Concluding their investigation into a fatal 2019 shooting by King County Sheriff’s Office detectives, the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) sharply criticized the sheriff’s office for failing to learn from a string of similar shootings and outlined 23 policy and training recommendations to prevent similar incidents in the future.
The recommendations accompanied OLEO’s report on the killing of 36-year-old Anthony Chilchott by plainclothes detectives.
In November 2019, Detective George Alvarez and his partner, Detective Josh Lerum, were driving an unmarked car when they spotted 36-year-old Anthony Chilcott, who was wanted for stealing an SUV and a pet poodle, parked next to a power station in rural southeastern King County. Earlier that day, Chilcott had evaded a Washington State Patrol officer, and the detectives were under instructions not to confront him directly.
Without consulting with Lerum or waiting for backup, Alvarez decided to pull within inches of Chilcott’s driver-side door, sparking a confrontation that ended with both detectives shooting Chilcott, who was unarmed, in the head. Neither detective was wearing a sheriff’s uniform, and witnesses at a bus stop nearby told investigators that they didn’t initially realize that the pair that rammed the SUV and broke Chilcott’s window with a sledgehammer and the butts of their handguns were police officers.
Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht fired Alvarez,for failing to follow basic de-escalation policies and for “extremely poor tactical and officer safety decisions” during the fatal confrontation near Enumclaw in November 2019. She reprimanded Lerum for failing to wear a protective vest and failing to identify himself as a police officer, but he remains on the force as a deputy.
During a presentation before the King County Council on Tuesday, OLEO policy analyst Katy Kirschner said the sheriff’s office had failed to adopt adequate training and policies for plainclothes operations, and that these gaps contributed to Chilcott’s death. Kirschner also said the sheriff’s office hasn’t done enough to impress upon officers that “speculative or generalized fears” that a suspect could harm bystanders aren’t a justification for using force. “Top-down messaging is a key part of making these reforms work,” she said.
OLEO brought up similar points when it reviewed the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens by plainclothes sheriff’s deputies in 2017..
In their report, OLEO reiterated its longstanding recommendation that the sheriff’s office conduct in-person, recorded interviews with officers less than a day after a shooting or other serious incident. Currently, the King County Sheriff’s Office can only require officers to provide signed statements 48 hours after a serious incident; in the Chilcott case, Alvarez and Lerum didn’t provide statements until eight days after the shooting, and they weren’t interviewed until the sheriff’s office began an internal investigation eight months later.
“I don’t think I can overemphasize the importance of collecting statements from officers in a timely manner,” Kirschner said, adding that written statements are far less valuable than in-person interviews with an investigator, who can ask officers questions that might not otherwise come up.
Johanknecht appeared before the council to present her response to OLEO’s report, which emphasized policy changes the sheriff’s office has made since the 2019 shooting. But Johanknecht argued that it was unfair to blame Alvarez’s actions on policy or training failures, telling the council that “the best policy, tactics and training in the world did not stop poor decision-making.” Any changes to the force investigation process, she added, will have to be negotiated with the King County Police Officers’ Guild, whose contract expires in December. OLEO, however, doesn’t agree that oversight measures need to be bargained.
Upcoming changes to the structure of the sheriff’s office will complicate the follow-up to OLEO’s report. When the sheriff becomes an appointed position in January, the sheriff’s office will fall under the authority of the county executive, who will be responsible for guiding the office’s response to OLEO recommendations, as well as the county’s negotiation with the sheriff’s union.
Chilcott’s sister, Amanda, also made an appearance during Tuesday’s council hearing, remembering her brother as a “protector” whose loss still weighs heavy on his family. “Tony did not get a chance to learn from his mistakes,” she said. “He got a death sentence handed down without a trial.”