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Law enforcement oversight office seeks subpoena power

Organization has been unable to investigate King County Sheriff’s Office.

Independent investigations of the King County Sheriff’s Office has not happened in the three years since voters approved the creation of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight in 2015 due to the powers still being negotiated in bargaining with law enforcement unions.

Deborah Jacobs is the director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) and asked the county’s charter review commission to recommend the office be granted subpoena power in the county’s charter. While a voter-approved measure in 2015 gave OLEO this power in county ordinance form, it is not specified in the county code.

Because of this, the OLEO hasn’t tried to subpoena the King County Sheriff’s Office, a move which she is worried currently could be denied. Her office has not been able to conduct any investigations, even though Jacobs said there have been times when they were warranted.

“My office is asserting that we have subpoena power regardless of whether it’s in the charter. We would like the charter to be consistent with the ordinance,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs said statewide there is support for independent investigations of critical incidents involving law enforcement and that granting subpoena power would help facilitate their investigations.

“It’s consistent with the mood of the state on these issues,” she said.

Additionally, receiving records requests in a timely manner has been a struggle. Jacobs said part of this stems from the King County Sheriff’s Office having a large number of requests to process as well as a new administration. However, the OLEO is supposed to have a wide range of access to people, facilities and documents.

“We have a lot of problems and we’re trying (to work) with the Sheriff’s Office to develop better systems to ensure we have timely access to what we need,” Jacobs said.

Much of this has been held up in collective bargaining with the Sheriff’s Office’s officer’s guild, which has been in negotiation for years. The last contract with law enforcement personnel wrapped up at the end of 2016. Jacobs could not say when the process would be finished.

Several police oversight offices around the country already have subpoena power, including in Chicago, Oakland, New York and San Francisco.

King County Sheriff’s Office media relations officer Sgt. Ryan Abbott said that while they value transparency and accountability they questioned whether the OLEO needed subpoena power. The OLEO has access to the Sheriff’s Office’s internal investigations database and all officers statements, as well as recorded victims and witness statements as well as documents related to the case.

Additionally, Abbott said they were concerned that being able to issue subpoena’s without review by a judge worries them. Abbott said subpoenas can also be used to compel officers to speak with the OLEO it could interfere with their fifth amendment rights against self-incrimination in potential cases where force is used. Abbott noted there is a process in place that allows for information to be gathered from deputies without waiving their fifth amendment rights.

King County’s charter review commission is also looking at making other recommendations to present to the King County Council as part of an update. Following that, the council decides which recommendations to put before voters. The commission has until May to solicit community feedback.

Other issues being examined include election reforms to voting in the county, such as moving to a ranked choice voting system. This system would allow voters to rank all of their candidates in order of preference and also whittles down the number of candidates based on choice. This form of runoff voting is already being used by a number of jurisdictions across the country and can increase representation for historically underrepresented communities, according to commission documents.

The commissioners could also recommend the county create public financing for political campaigns similar to Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program, which was approved in 2015. This program gives voters vouchers to donate to their preferred political candidate.

Additionally, the county council could be expanded and possibly provide more direct representation.

This report has been updated with comment from the King County Sheriff’s Office.

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