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Should the King County sheriff be elected or appointed? That’s on the ballot

caption: A file photo King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht being sworn in on Jan. 2, 2018, in Seattle. Johanknecht was elected to the position. A ballot measure asks voters to decide whether the position should be appointed.
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A file photo King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht being sworn in on Jan. 2, 2018, in Seattle. Johanknecht was elected to the position. A ballot measure asks voters to decide whether the position should be appointed.
AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Two proposed charter amendments on the ballot would make the King County sheriff’s office more like a big city police department.

Amendment 5 would allow the sheriff to be appointed by the executive and county council.

Amendment 6 would allow the council to change the structure and duties of the sheriff’s office.

King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay is an author of one of the amendments. He said the amendments respond to the widespread protests against systemic racism and police violence.

“What they’ve been asking us to do is move away from system of law enforcement that deploys armed police officers to respond to every situation, because that’s how you end up with dead Black and brown people, to put it frank,” Zahilay said.

“What people have been asking us to do is create something that looks more like a menu of public health and community-based alternatives.”

Zahilay said the council doesn’t have the authority to create that “menu” – the charter says the council cannot reduce or amend the duties of the sheriff’s office.

If the amendments prevail, Zahilay said he’d seek input from the family members of Tommy Le and others killed in encounters with sheriffs’ deputies on how to reshape the agency and choose its leadership.

King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht was elected in 2017. Of Amendment 6, she said, “Plain and simple on that one, it is a mechanism to defund the King County Sheriff’s Office, to dismantle the sheriff’s office, and to control the office of sheriff itself.”

Johanknecht said she has supported new programs to respond to emergency calls, like the RADAR program which funds mental health “navigators” to assist law enforcement. The program is in place in five cities and could be expanded to unincorporated King County in the proposed budget.

In the wake of this summer’s protests, Johanknecht said she also used her authority to quickly commit to the “8 Can’t Wait” package of reforms for law enforcement, which included banning chokeholds or neck restraints.

“It was the elected sheriff’s ability to talk directly to the affected labor unions to solve this within a matter of days, and make those adjustments to policy that I think are critical,” she said.

If the sheriff is no longer elected, Johanknecht said public accountability would be less clear.

Captain Stan Seo is the spokesman for the Save Our Sheriff campaign opposing the amendments. He calls getting rid of the elected sheriff “a power grab” by county officials.

“When you have one person in charge of law enforcement or public safety, and focused on that issue, you’re going to get better service as opposed to having 10 individuals, 9 council persons and an exec responsible for this,” Seo said.

Changes to the sheriff’s office would most directly affect unincorporated King County, and the 12 cities that contract with the sheriff for their policing services.

Four of those cities have passed resolution opposing the amendments. King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert represents a big part of the county’s unincorporated areas. She said her constituents want the ability to vote for the sheriff.

“What cemented it for me,” Lambert said, “was watching [former Seattle Police Chief] Carmen Best’s speech where she looked like she’d been socked in the stomach and she said, ‘I did not make the decision to give away the East Precinct.’ And at that moment I said I have made my decision – I never want anybody to be in a situation where for political reasons they make a decision that they know is not in the best interest of the citizens or the safety of the officers.”

Police temporarily abandoned the precinct in response to protests on Capitol Hill over the summer.

A former law enforcement official in King County who opposes the amendments said the current political climate is so polarized, it’s been hard to have a substantive conversation.

“Don’t paint law enforcement in this region with this brush that we don’t want innovation, and we don’t want to have other ways of looking at policing,” they said, adding, “I think they’ll defund the Sheriff’s Office. Because right now the county is on the ropes fiscally.”

Supporters of the amendments say they don’t believe the Sheriff’s Office will make the innovation they’re seeking on its own. The local YWCA has endorsed them.

Calandra Childers is one of their board members. She said with an appointed sheriff, the county could do a nationwide search for the best talent. “It will really allow us to expand the pool of candidates that are considered for the sheriff’s position.”

Childers said the YWCA’s mission includes supporting alternatives to incarceration. They offer a program that seeks to help victims of abuse who are themselves accused of a domestic violence-related crime.

“The Survivors First program is a partnership between the YWCA and the King County Prosecuting Attorney,” she said. “And it connects survivor defendants to intervention services without criminal charges.”

Childers said if these amendments pass, that’s the type of program the county council could expand.

If the sheriff is appointed, Councilmember Zahilay said, “I actually think responsiveness will go up.”

He said the public could bring concerns to the council at any time, instead of just weighing in when the office is up for reelection.

It's rare to have an appointed sheriff, but King County has experimented with both methods. The sheriff was elected until 1969.

As Publicola explains, the county made the sheriff an appointed position from 1969 to 1996 in response to a corruption scandal. The King County Police Officers Guild then led the successful campaign to make the sheriff an elected position once again.

And the Guild has now contributed most of the $217,000 raised by the “Save Our Sheriff” campaign. The Charter for Justice campaign in support of the amendments has raised just $5700, most of it contributed directly by King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski.

The amendments are supported by the six Democrats on the council and opposed by its three Republicans.

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