I have always viewed the position of sheriff as a non-political professional administrator — more like a city police chief than a politician.
I was disappointed when voters in King County bought a political argument to turn the job into an elected position. King County voters recently changed their minds and restored the position to appointed, though I’m still not all that trusting of the King County Council’s motives and suggest voters watch their actions closely.
With the position reporting to the King County Executive election politics are handled by the executive, not the sheriff. One of my reasons for preferring an appointed sheriff position is the situation unfolding with the sheriff in Pierce County.
The Seattle Times on March 19 ran the first front page story about Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer’s ill-advised 2 a.m. confrontation with a Black 24-year-old newspaper carrier, Sedrick Altheimer, whom Troyer thought had been acting suspiciously by going to different houses in his neighborhood.
The biggest problem with the story was not just the poor judgment the sheriff exhibited going out to confront the person himself, but that it occurred last Jan. 27 — two months ago! That raises worrisome transparency questions for the sheriff where none should exist.
Sheriff Troyer is a separately elected official and just started a four-year term, and there is no one above him to check his behavior. As more information has become available to the public through the media, we have learned that there was a recording of Troyer’s call to the police dispatcher that resulted in almost 40 Tacoma police officers arriving on the scene. In the call to the dispatcher, the sheriff said the newspaper carrier threatened him, although later he seems to change that story.
We learned that Troyer was not in uniform, was in an unmarked car, and did not identify himself when he confronted Altheimer, apparently having just gotten out of bed after hearing a noise. Altheimer noticed Troyer following him and approached Troyer’s car to ask why he was following him. Altheimer said Troyer accused him of being a “porch pirate,” which is someone who steals packages from porches. Altheimer felt he was just doing his regular job of delivering papers, although Altheimer didn’t tell Troyer he was a newspaper carrier.
There are differences between the stories that Altheimer and Troyer told regarding their interaction. Also there is some confusion about whether the sheriff had Altheimer blocked in or Altheimer had the sheriff blocked in. This is how someone, likely Altheimer, could have gotten shot by Troyer or one of the responding officers, but it appeared that when the other officers arrived, they were able to figure out that Altheimer was a newspaper carrier just doing his job, and most of the officers went on to other tasks.
If the officer in this situation was not the sheriff, what would be standard procedure if an officer called in a suspicious person report that included an alleged threat and resulted in a mass of officers arriving at a situation involving a newspaper carrier?
Would Sheriff Troyer tolerate an incident report arriving two months late? Would he tolerate this much confusion around the facts without an investigation? Did Troyer recant that Altheimer threatened him or not? And the public embarrassment to his department? In the worse possible scenario, what if Altheimer had been shot?
This situation could have turned very bad, very quick. At a minimum, the officer would face an investigation and likely be relieved of duty until the investigation was completed. The same should be expected from the sheriff. He should step down from his duties until the investigation is complete. Having him in daily contact with officers, or in contact with Tacoma officers, could risk compromising the investigation.
In the aftermath, Troyer has faced calls for him to resign or face recall. Until we know the facts, those requests are premature. But Sheriff Troyer does face scrutiny and should because he holds a powerful position with little or no oversight. Have there been thefts in the neighborhood? Did one of the officers draw his gun? When taken with other questionable comments and conduct in last year’s homicide of Manny Ellis, other questions arise.
Through the media, we recently learned that Troyer had also called in last November 11, 2020, about an attempted theft from his vehicle involving two Black males. That was almost four months ago. A recall of Troyer may be considered at some point as tensions between police and Black residents are already shaky, and Troyer has already said he won’t resign.
Into that murky breach stepped the Pierce County Council, putting themselves on the hot seat. They instructed their staff to identify an independent investigator who could investigate the sheriff’s interaction with Altheimer, presumably along with other witnesses associated with the incident, such as the dispatcher and the arriving police officers. The investigator should also review Troyer’s conduct in the Ellis death and the November attempted theft as well, as Troyer is held to a higher standard of behavior as sheriff.
In trying to achieve transparency, the Pierce County Council finds itself in a very awkward position over the conduct of its elected sheriff. They are the only ones that can investigate the situation and provide a complete report to the public. The report cannot miss any person that has information, and must be done quickly.
Before any other steps are considered, the facts need to be known and made public so the public can make its own determination. But what happens then? The council has no authority to discipline the sheriff. Based on his comments to the Tacoma News Tribune on March 21, 2021, the sheriff has no intention of resigning and may not fully comprehend the gravity of his situation. The end result? The Pierce County council will be under significant pressure to change the position from elected position to one appointed by the executive.
Troyer’s conduct looks careless at a minimum, but in fairness to all concerned, the investigation needs to be completed first so that everyone has the same set of facts to consider. If the public then wants the council to change the position to appointed, Troyer would be entitled to complete his four-year term before that change could be made. Another option for the public would be to recall the sheriff, which may need some legal questions resolved. But everything depends on what we learn from the investigation.
Federal Way resident Bob Roegner is a former mayor of Auburn. Contact email@example.com.