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King County's police oversight chief faces ouster

caption:  Deborah Jacobs, right, director of the King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, answers question at a press conference earlier this year.
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Deborah Jacobs, right, director of the King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, answers question at a press conference earlier this year.
KUOW/David Hyde

Family members of people killed by police say Deborah Jacobs and the King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight have brought important scrutiny to those incidents.

But in the wake of a workplace investigation, some King County Council members say they're ready for "new leadership" at the office.

This week, the King County Council will consider whether to reappoint Deborah Jacobs as director of the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight.

Jacobs is hoping to stay on the job. She said her office has made important strides since her hiring in 2016, and is about to release a significant outside review into the 2017 shooting of Tommy Le by King County deputies.

“I would like for the King County Council to consider my full record and have an informed conversation with me about my tenure, and hopefully make a decision that reappointment is the right step," Jacobs said.

But King County Council Chair Claudia Balducci said in a statement Aug. 17 that she would recommend against Jacobs’ reappointment, adding that “the agency will benefit from new leadership.”

Jacobs said the statement came as a surprise. A council committee then voted 7-2 against her reappointment.

Balducci noted that Jacobs had been the subject of a workplace investigation into complaints from her staff. The investigation found that Jacobs engaged in instances of inappropriate conduct that violated county policies. Balducci said she takes the conclusions seriously.

“That’s not to take away from the great work that OLEO has done over the last four, five years,” she said. “But I just felt that it was a reasonable time because the office comes open every four years, to look for new leadership.”

Jacobs said, “I made a misstep or two that caused people to feel uncomfortable. And I wish that we had been able to resolve those things informally but I understand that that wasn’t a comfortable situation so a complaint was filed.”

In one instance, Jacobs commented that after a meeting between the then-all male sheriff’s office staff and her all-female team, she was “full of frustration and contemplated if [her office] had a male highly placed in the office, would the Sheriff’s Office respond to that person better."

While Jacobs ultimately promoted a female person of color instead, that comment was the subject of a complaint.

“Granted I should not have vented in that way, no doubt about it,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs said she’s worked hard to represent the public and battle collective bargaining restrictions on police oversight, but hasn’t been allowed to make that case before the county council. She said she has also filed a tort claim saying she’s been the victim of sex and gender discrimination.

Jacobs said whoever leads civilian oversight in the future, the county must address the restrictions that labor agreements place on its role.

“The collective bargaining agreement that governs OLEO’s work has been incredibly restrictive and contributes to an environment of tension,” she said.

Jacobs said she wrote an email in 2017 with the subject line “Say his name: Tommy Le.” She said she was notified by the Office of Labor Relations “that I had likely violated the collective bargaining agreement because it prohibits us from saying the name of a community member who was hurt by police, or any of the officers involved.”

A 2015 audit found the office lacked independence, authority and access to information. While voters that year approved the ability of the office to do independent reviews, like one of the police shooting of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, Jacobs said the King County Police Officers Guild has filed a grievance over those reviews.

Balducci agreed that union contracts have countered some of the oversight functions that voters have endorsed. “We’ve made progress -- incremental steps -- to get to full operation but there are still capacities we want OLEO to have that they don’t yet have,” she said.

Balducci said it may take changes to state law to resolve that tension. And she noted that voters will consider a charter amendment in November to give the office subpoena power.

Meanwhile Frank Gittens, Mi’Chance’s father, and other family members of people killed by police have submitted a letter endorsing Jacobs and praising the reviews her office has released.

“This is just one example of how Deborah, as head of OLEO, has been able to transform tragic circumstances into levers for reform,” they wrote.

The King County Sheriff’s Office issued a statement thanking Jacobs for her positive impact. They said she has partnered with them to strengthen policies around the use of force and other topics.

Amid sweeping Black Lives Matter protests against police violence and racial injustice, Jacobs said she’s excited about the effort to shift emergency calls to new types of first responders, calling it “low-hanging fruit and a really great start.” She said cities could tweak and add more services as they go.

“You also have to have backup systems because sometimes safe calls turn into dangerous calls,” she said, so “how do you protect your responders.”

“I would just encourage people to believe that change is possible and then have the courage to explore what that might look like.”

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