An annual report on law enforcement complaints investigations from 2018 showed the King County Sheriff’s Office received just fewer than 600 complaints in 2018.
The report was completed by the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO). It found there were a total of 589 complaints in 2018, with 58 percent coming from the public and 42 percent coming from within the Sheriff’s Office. The most common allegation of misconduct from the public was the use of excessive or unnecessary force, which made up about one-quarter of the allegations.
The Sheriff’s Office has an Internal Investigations Unit (IIU) which reviews complaints, and the OLEO reviewed the investigations. The IIU investigated about 60 percent of the complaints it received. Of the 108 allegations of excessive or unnecessary use of force, the Sheriff’s Office found all but one were justified, didn’t occur or didn’t have enough information to make a determination. Further, only 10 percent of the five most common allegations of misconduct reported by the public were sustained. The sustained rate of the five most common allegations coming from within the Sheriff’s Office was nearly half.
Deborah Jacobs, director of the OLEO, said at a Sept. 10 Law and Justice Committee meeting that little headway has been made on increasing her department’s access to Sheriff’s Office deputies and employees through subpoenas.
“I’ve been here for three years, we’ve been in collective bargaining the whole time I’ve been here, we have not been making the progress we should be making,” Jacobs said.
Policy related to personnel must be bargained with the law enforcement union, a process which Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht said was out of her hands, as well as the county council’s. Johanknecht also said there were about 560,000 interactions between deputies and the public in 2018, and of that less than one half of 1 percent resulted in a complaint.
The OLEO report said it reviewed 127 internal investigations to evaluate whether they were thorough, objective and timely. It asked for additional investigation or documentation during 27 investigations. Of these, the department didn’t certify 18 cases as meeting those criteria. Of those 18, 10 were related to the rights of Sheriff’s Office employees, including times when employees weren’t notified they were under investigation.
The five most common external complaints were excessive or unnecessary use of force, lack of courtesy, inappropriate use of authority, actions violating policies and conduct unbecoming of an officer. The most common internal complaints were violating policies, making false reports or encouraging others to do so, unbecoming conduct, lack of courtesy and willful violation of internal or county rules and ethics.
Common reasons for the findings include not interviewing subjects, not notifying officers of their rights, not identifying allegations, not photographing a complainant after use of force or a conflict of interest. One of the cases OLEO didn’t certify involved two African American teens stopped by deputies at the White River Amphitheater. The investigation process didn’t include interviews with key parties and the county ended up settling with the teens for $80,000.
The one report that the Sheriff’s Office sustained internally was one where a traffic control deputy was monitoring a road that was closed for repairs. A driver tried to get around the closure, and the deputy pointed their gun at the driver. The deputy said the vehicle was approaching quickly. The Sheriff’s Office sustained the allegation of excessive force, saying the deputy could have used de-escalation tactics instead.
The OLEO report also included recommendations for policies surrounding use of force reporting, using beanbag shotguns, foot pursuits and off-duty employment.
The office recommended that the Sheriff’s Office raise the bar for using beanbag rounds in shotguns from being used on people who are just “resisting” to “physically resisting.” It would also bar deputies from using beanbag rounds on someone in a crowd unless the officer had supervisor approval and certain conditions were met. It would also ban using the rounds against people on elevated positions like the top of a building unless conditions are met. It also recommends officers not target vital areas like the face, neck, chest and back due to an increased risk of killing the person.
Additionally, the report said there should be a clearer time frame during which deputies have to send out a radio broadcast saying they’re in foot pursuit, require that commanders articulate circumstances supporting their decision to either end or continue a foot pursuit and document any “lessons learned” from those instances. The recommendation came after a Pierce County officer was killed by a suspect during a foot pursuit.