Tag: Office of Law Enforcement Oversight

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

Oversight Group Recommends Policy Changes In Response to 2019 Shooting of Unarmed Man

Det

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.

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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. Continue reading “Oversight Group Recommends Policy Changes In Response to 2019 Shooting of Unarmed Man”

Evening Fizz: County Picks New Oversight Director, Report Recommends Shifting Half of 911 Calls Away from Cops, City Directory Disappears

1. The Metropolitan King County Council voted 8-1 on Tuesday to appoint Tamer Abouzeid, a former investigator with Chicago’s Civilian Office of Police Accountability, to serve as the next permanent director of the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), which oversees the King County Sheriff’s Office. The sole vote against Abouzeid’s appointment was from Councilmember Pete von Reichbauer, who represents Federal Way and Auburn.

Abouzeid was one of two finalists for the position; the other candidate, Eddie Aubrey, is the head of the oversight office for the Richmond, California police department. During his interview last week, Abouzeid described an eight-year plan to develop OLEO’s role as a “mini-think tank” on police reform and oversight, as well as a player in the county’s negotiations with law enforcement unions; at a previous community meeting, Abouzaid also expressed support for future state legislation that would restrict counties from adopting law enforcement union contracts that limit oversight.

Currently, Abouzeid works as a civil rights attorney with the Chicago office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations; he also briefly ran for a seat in the Illinois state senate in 2020, though he withdrew before the Democratic Party primary.

Current interim OLEO Director Adrienne Wat has led the office since last fall, when the council narrowly voted not to renew the contract of the last permanent director, Deborah Jacobs, after an independent investigation found Jacobs made a series of inappropriate remarks to her staff during her four-year tenure.

Both Jacobs and King County Police Officers’ Guild (KCPOG) President Mike Mansanarez later alleged that her ouster was partially engineered by Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht. According to Mansanarez, the sheriff attempted to persuade Mansanarez’s union—which represents most sworn employees of the King County Sheriff’s Office—to agree to wear body-worn video cameras in exchange for removing Jacobs, who often clashed with both Johanknecht and the union. Johanknecht denies the allegations.

OLEO’s first director, Charles Gaither, also left the office in 2014 after conflicts with then-sheriff John Urquhart. Following his departure, Gaither received a $84,500 settlement from the county after alleging that sheriff’s office staff harassed him based on his race. Jacobs also filed a discrimination claim against the county after her departure last fall; that litigation is ongoing.

Abouzeid will take over in September, only months before the county’s contract with the KCPOG expires and before the sheriff becomes an appointed position—a shift that will almost certainly bring a new sheriff into office.

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We know there are a lot of publications competing for your dollars and attention, but PubliCola truly is different: We’re funded entirely by reader contributions—no ads, no paywalls, ever.

So if you get something out of this site, consider giving something back by kicking in a few dollars a month, or making a one-time contribution, to help us keep doing this work. If you prefer to Venmo or write a check, our Support page includes information about those options. Thank you for your ongoing readership and support.

2. A team of city employees assembled by Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan last September presented a report to the city council’s public safety committee on Tuesday that proposed shifting up to 12 percent of the calls for service currently handled by the Seattle Police Department to other responders in the near future—roughly 48,000 calls a year, or six percent of SPD’s officer hours.

Mayoral staffer Chrissie Grover-Roybal told the council that a portion of the calls 911 dispatchers can shift to non-police responders in the short term are so-called “person down” calls, which involve someone who is either asleep or unconscious in public, and other low-level welfare checks that present relatively little risk to the responders. Last Friday, Durkan appeared alongside council member Lisa Herbold and the heads of the city’s public safety agencies to announce a proposal to create a new unit to handle those low-acuity crisis calls—a new Fire Department unit tentatively called “Triage One,” which could call for backup from other responders as needed. 

But on Tuesday, Herbold pointed out that Triage One, as currently proposed, would only handle a small fraction of the 48,000 calls that the team concluded do not require a police response. Julie Kline, the mayor’s senior public safety advisor, responded that the Triage One proposal will only be an early step in shifting low-level 911 calls away from police.

In the long term, the report suggests that alternative, non-police responders could eventually handle as many as half the calls to which police currently respond.

The team’s estimates relied heavily on an analysis of SPD’s calls for service by the Oakland-based National Institute for Criminal Justice Reform (NICJR). Researchers from the NICJR pointed to nearly 200 call types that could be low-acuity enough not to merit a police response; in their report, however, the interdepartmental team only proposed shifting 28 of those call types to non-police responders in the near future.

The team cast the proposals as an opportunity to transfer a portion of SPD’s workload to accommodate a smaller number of officers available to respond to emergency calls: since June 2020, more than 250 sworn officers have left SPD. “Offloading some of our service hours begins to make up for the people we’ve lost,” said Chris Fisher, SPD’s chief strategy officer.

3. The city of Seattle’s IT department quietly eliminated the online directory of city staffers that was the only place where members of the public (and journalists) could access contact information for the majority of people who work at the city. The public-facing directory was replaced last week with a 404 error page; it has since been updated with links to contact spokespeople for various departments, as well as the generic public-facing pages for each department. However, anyone who wants to contact a city staffer who is not a designated point of contact for the department won’t find that information on seattle.gov.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office provided a statement from the city’s interim Chief Technology Officer, Jim Loter, who said the directory had to be taken down “because the underlying application code, database, and server were beyond ‘end-of-life’ and could no longer be supported, secured, or maintained at current levels.” Loter said the city is currently working on a replacement system and hopes to have one in place by the end of the year.

“This was an unplanned change so it will take time for us to ramp up and staff a project team to finalize the specifications and develop the replacement solution,” Loter said, adding, “I completely understand that the removal of this service makes it more difficult to contact individual staff in the City. However, I assure you that the change was made solely due to operational reasons and not to intentionally obfuscate public information.”

Even if all goes smoothly and the city restores the directory before the end of the year (a big if), that will still mean almost half a year in which ordinary citizens and journalists lack access to this basic public information. No one should have to file a public records request—or convince a gatekeeper—to find out how to contact the right person at the city.

In Narrow Vote, County Council Ousts Police Accountability Director

 

By Paul Kiefer, with reporting by Erica C. Barnett

On Tuesday afternoon, the Metropolitan King County Council voted by a narrow margin against renewing Office of Law Enforcement Oversight Director Deborah Jacobs’ contract, which expired in June. (Jacobs was serving as de-facto head for the past two months). In her place, the council appointed OLEO’s current Deputy Director, Adrienne Wat, to serve as interim director.

Council Chair Claudia Balducci first proposed not renewing Jacobs’ contract two weeks ago. Her surprise announcement came a month after the council received the findings of an independent investigation into allegations by OLEO staff that Jacobs made a series of inappropriate or discriminatory remarks to them during her four-year term as director. For example, one staffer complained that Jacobs had commented (sarcastically, she says) that she could only see a white man as deputy director of OLEO, and, on a separate occasion, that she could not invite OLEO staff to a Roe v. Wade celebration because it was for women only.

OLEO community engagement manager Jenna Franklin praised Jacobs for hiring “people who are different and more diverse than her—that’s what a leader like that should do.” But she notes that “the ability to work with sensitivity in collaboration with diverse staff and communities is essential for public servants.” King County’s Equity and Social Justice rules state that “elected leaders and directors are ultimately responsible for ESJ,” Franklin notes, “including in regard to workplace and workforce.”

“In this case, she has acknowledged missteps and that impacts to staff did occur.  Missteps shouldn’t be the sum total of a person, a system, or those [they] represent.”

“There’s a narrative that I push the boundaries and that’s probably true, because I have tried to fulfill the public’s expectation for strong oversight, and I’ve faced endless roadblocks in doing so. They have used that narrative as a basis to try to discredit my work.”—Deborah Jacobs

In today’s hearing, Balducci explained that her push to not reappoint Jacobs was driven by  concerns about the OLEO work environment; an investigation into Jacobs substantiated five of the eight complaints against her. One of those sustained complaints stemmed from an incident in which Jacobs apparently commented that an employee’s weight and race made it easier for him to build rapport with sheriff’s deputies; the man, who has struggled with weight-related self-image problems, said he felt uncomfortable speaking to Jacobs directly about her comment.

“We are supposed to be about accountability and equity and fairness,” Balducci said in an interview before the vote. “I don’t think we really can accept less than achieving accountability and equity and fairness in our own workplace. If we are going to be about investigating and calling out a lack of equity in one place it makes [the need to have equity and accountability within OLEO] even more compelling.”

The vote not to reappoint Jacobs was closer than the August 18 vote of the council’s Employment and Administrative Committee to recommend removing Jacobs. (That committee includes all nine members of the council.) In the earlier vote, the council voted 7-2 to not reappoint Jacobs; on Tuesday, the full council reached the same conclusion with a 5-4 vote. Council members Dave Upthegrove and Rod Dembowski voted against the ouster both times; council members Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Jim McDermott changed votes.

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The most vocal opposition to Jacobs’ ouster on Tuesday came from Dembowski and Upthegrove, Both expressed concern that Balducci and other colleagues are being too harsh and that replacing her is not in the best interest of police accountability in the county. “The assets that I’ve seen [Jacobs] bring to this office,” Upthegrove said, “particularly as it pertains to community engagement and the tenacity with which she’s represented our interests, and what we’ve seen to be a passionate commitment to racial and gender equity, leads me to believe that the mistakes she made aren’t enough to lead me to this conclusion.” He also said removing Jacobs was an example of a double standard: “I can’t help but thing of members of law enforcement who continue to have their jobs today in the face of mistakes and judgement calls that—in my mind—are much more serious.”

Dembowski echoed those concerns, adding that he saw the council’s approach to replacing Jacobs as legally dubious. “I’ve been very troubled by this process,” he said during the council meeting. “It’s generated a $2 million claim,” in the form of a tort Jacobs filed in Pierce County two weeks ago alleging sex and gender discrimination by the county. “I think that we mixed discipline from the report with reappointment, and I think they should have been kept separate.”

Local police accountability watchdogs also expressed their concerns about the council’s move to oust Jacobs, whom they see as a brave and determined force for greater oversight of the King County Sheriff’s Office. Annalesa Thomas, a co-founder of the police accountability group Next Steps Washington and the mother of Leonard Thomas (killed in 2013 by Fife Police while unarmed and holding his son) appeared during Tuesday’s public comment period to voice her support for Jacobs; in an interview before the vote, Thomas said Jacobs “has brought to the forefront many of the issues that family members [of police shooting victims] raise. She didn’t go along to get along.”

“We are supposed to be about accountability and equity and fairness. I don’t think we really can accept less than achieving accountability and equity and fairness in our own workplace.”—King County Council member Claudia Balducci

For her part, Jacobs acknowledges that she was sometimes reckless in her comments to coworkers and hoped for a chance to make amends, but she is also convinced that the council’s decision was driven by politics and a lack of support for accountability itself. “It’s been an unjust process and I wouldn’t wish this treatment on anyone else,” she said in an interview. “It’s going to be really hard for anyone to survive because it’s a hostile climate, there is little support, and mistakes are seized upon.”

Jacobs also says her record as a fierce defender of accountability—and the resulting tensions between her and the KCSO—has left her constantly defending herself since she took the position in 2016. “They [KCSO] don’t trust me,” she explained. “There’s a narrative that I push the boundaries and that’s probably true, because I have tried to fulfill the public’s expectation for strong oversight, and I’ve faced endless roadblocks in doing so. They have used that narrative as a basis to try to discredit my work.”

Balducci denied that her proposal against Jacobs was intended to assuage the KCSO. “I cannot state in strong enough terms how important it is to me that we have a strong, courageous, diligent leader of our Office of Law Enforcement Oversight. Those things are not bad. Those are good things,” she said. “There is a kind of inherent tension and even conflict that can exist in the role itself, and you need somebody who isn’t intimidated by that and who need to go forward with what needs to be done.” Continue reading “In Narrow Vote, County Council Ousts Police Accountability Director”

King County Council Committee Recommends Replacing Law Enforcement Oversight Director

OLEO Staff - King County

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.

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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. Continue reading “King County Council Committee Recommends Replacing Law Enforcement Oversight Director”