Tag: Office of Law Enforcement Oversight

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”