With Changes on the Horizon for the King County Sheriff’s Office, a New Police Oversight Director Looks for Opportunity

OLEO director Tamer Abouzeid
Tamer Abouzeid

By Paul Kiefer

Next January, a new, appointed King County sheriff will replace the elected incumbent, Mitzi Johanknecht,  just as the county’s contract with its largest police union expires.

For Tamer Abouzeid, the new director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO)—the county’s independent police oversight agency—the changes are an opportunity for his office to expand its impact. “When someone comes in as an elected sheriff, they believe that they can do what they want because the people elected them,” Abouzeid said. “That’s not going to be true of the next person.”

OLEO’s two most recent permanent directors each served a single term, in part because of strained relationships with current and past sheriffs, who rarely adopted the policy changes OLEO recommended. Although King County voters passed a law in 2015 allowing OLEO to investigate uses of deadly force and misconduct complaints—transforming them from an advisory agency to an investigative one—the county’s 2020 contract with the King County Police Officers Guild defanged the new law by preventing the office from investigating misconduct allegations against union members.

The current union contract still limits OLEO to the mostly advisory role of reviewing the sheriff’s internal investigations after the fact and issuing policy recommendations. With its authority reduced, OLEO has struggled to make an impact: Of 16 sets of policy recommendations issued by OLEO since 2018, the sheriff’s office has taken no action on more than half, including a recommendation to extend the sheriff’s policy against discrimination to cover off-duty conduct.

OLEO can review the sheriff’s misconduct investigations and determine, or certify, that an investigation was thorough and objective; however, whether OLEO certifies an investigation has little practical impact. According to OLEO’s annual report, the office only declined to certify 12 investigations out of the 116 they reviewed, including five that included allegations of excessive force.

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King County Executive Dow Constantine and the county council will begin considering candidates for sheriff by the end of this year, and with or without a permanent replacement, Johanknecht leaves office by January. But Abouzeid says OLEO isn’t putting things on hold for the next three months. “We get a chance to put our business in order so that the next sheriff has a clear picture of what OLEO can do, what we’ve recommended, and what they would need to do to get our recommendations off the ground,” Abouzeid told PubliCola on Wednesday, one day after presenting OLEO’s annual report to the King County Council.

Those preparations, he said, will include getting a better sense of what data the sheriff’s office collects and prioritizing OLEO’s backlog of policy recommendations. Some of OLEO’s unimplemented recommendations include mandating in-car and body-worn video cameras, requiring undercover officers to receive specialized undercover training, and instructing officers that “speculative, generalized concerns about a subject escaping and harming innocent third parties is an insufficient basis for the application of deadly force.”

In his presentation to the county council, Abouzeid offered data points to illustrate what a more empowered OLEO would need to tackle. Of the 352 misconduct complaints against sheriff’s staff in 2020, 15 percent involved an allegation of excessive force, and another six percent involved an allegation of biased policing. But after conducting internal investigations, the sheriff’s office did not sustain a single excessive force or bias complaint.

Abouzeid hopes that the next round of contract negotiations with the King County Police Officers Guild will be OLEO’s chance to once again conduct its own independent investigations into alleged misconduct by sheriff’s deputies. “We need barriers to oversight removed from the contract,” he told the council.

If the guild resists the change, Abouzeid urged the council to take unresolved disagreements to an arbitrator, who would make final decisions about contested aspects of the contract. While local governments usually want to avoid the risk of asking an arbitrator to resolve contract disputes, Abouzeid told the council that the political climate could give the county an advantage. “We are in a moment when an arbitrator is more likely than ever to err on the side of more oversight than less oversight,” he said, “especially because a collective bargaining agreement should not contravene public policy.”

Abouzeid told PubliCola he has seen first-hand how arbitration can lead to stronger oversight. Before arriving in King County in September, Abouzeid worked as an investigator for Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, where the city’s labor negotiators took with the union representing Chicago Police Department sergeants to an arbitrator. The arbitrator sided with the city on more issues than the negotiators expected, including allowing anonymous misconduct complaints about officers.

While he hasn’t yet met with the King County Police Officers Guild president Mike Mansanarez, Abouzeid is optimistic that he will be able to reach an agreement with the guild to allow OLEO to sit at the bargaining table during negotiations about police oversight—a change similar to one announced by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan last November that will give the city’s police oversight agencies a greater role in negotiations with police unions.

In the meantime, Abouzeid is pressing the county council to expand OLEO’s budget to hire new staff. “We’re trying to exercise as many of the roles that have been given to us as we can,” he said, “and if we can expand our authority, we’re going to need to keep requesting more staff so we can follow through on our mission. Even now, we’re stretched pretty thin.”