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.
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”