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King County Sheriff's Oversight Struggles To Launch

caption: Tina Dixon, Quanetta West and Deborah Jacobs (left to right) are finalists to head King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight.
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Tina Dixon, Quanetta West and Deborah Jacobs (left to right) are finalists to head King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight.
KUOW Photo/Amy Radil

The office meant to review complaints about the King County Sheriff’s Office has struggled to get off the ground.

Its job is to review complaints from excessive force to workplace harassment – and sign off to say that investigations were done properly. But staffers say that in the past, they’ve had to let many cases slide. This year, things were supposed to get better.

The King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, or OLEO, has only had interim directors for the last year and a half.

There are currently three finalists to take the helm. They recently spoke at a public meeting in White Center, south of Seattle.

Deborah Jacobs, formerly of the ACLU, told the group, “I don’t think that this role is about catching more police misconduct in King County, I think it’s about building trust in the community. It’s about having the community’s perspective included in the conversation.”

Quanetta West of Catholic Housing Services added: “Create that foundation, create that team, create that trust and respect. Because we have to respect the hard job that law enforcement has to do as they protect and serve, and the system isn’t broken.”

And civil rights attorney Tina Dixon said: “The community has voted, it was passed on the Nov. 3 ballot that you want more oversight. That doesn’t mean being an antagonist ‘day in and day out’ to the police, but it does mean doing your job.”

Jacobs said whoever gets this job will have to re-boot and rebuild the county’s oversight effort. An audit last year found it lacks independence, authority and access to information. Jacobs said she would not have sought this job if voters hadn’t approved new powers for the office last November.

The charter amendment states that OLEO will now be expected “to investigate, review and analyze the conduct” of Sheriff’s department employees. Currently the office’s role is limited to reviewing investigations performed by the department’s Internal Investigations Unit.

King County Councilmember Larry Gossett is in charge of implementing that charter amendment. He said he wants to spell out whether OLEO staff can visit investigation scenes, and other aspects of their role.

“We need to clarify all of that,” Gossett said. “When citizens have specific complaints or when there are real conflicts between police officers and individuals or groups of citizens, how is it going to be more properly and fairly investigated?”

King County Sheriff John Urquhart has said he supports the charter amendment, but that new powers for the civilian oversight office are only symbolic unless the police guilds agree to them through collective bargaining.

“We need a system that’s accepted by the officers and accepted by the public,” Urquhart said. “Both of them have to have buy-in.”

He said he’s deferring to the county executive to negotiate those provisions in the next contract; the current contract extends through 2016.

But Urquhart said even in its current form, OLEO reviewers are asking helpful questions about the investigations they review.

“Then we explain or we’ll say, ‘That’s a good idea, we should have done that,’” he said. “In fact we had that conversation with the OLEO director today and she was absolutely right. We have never said, ‘No we’re not going to do that.’”

One of the biggest obstacles for OLEO staff is the requirement – included in the current collective bargaining agreement – that they certify their review of completed investigations within five business days. The office has only one auditor, who said the five-day window to review completed investigations is causing cases to fall through the cracks.

The office’s interim director Cheryle Broom was only appointed recently. She notes that last year the office had to let over 100 cases go without review because the five days had elapsed.

“We don’t know exactly how they came up with the five days when they adopted the ordinance,” Broom said. “So I don’t want to call it arbitrary – and I think it’s working – but we’ve kind of had to work around it.”

Gossett said the five-day deadline is unrealistic and he’s committed to changing it.

Meanwhile, the man at the center of OLEO’s first tumultuous years said he’s trying to reclaim his reputation. Charles Gaither resigned in September 2014 amid accusations of mismanagement.

One of his employees obtained a protection order against him. Now living in L.A., Gaither said with that court order in place he would be unable to work in law enforcement.

“It’s very damaging. You can’t have anything like that stand and expect to find a job,” he said. “Your integrity, everything about you professionally, is a wash.”

Last November, Gaither represented himself in King County District Court and argued successfully to have the order terminated. He said he’s hopeful and grateful now that it’s no longer in place. The employee, auditor Tess Mullarkey, declined to comment, saying she could face a lawsuit from Gaither.

Gaither said there were inherent problems in the way the oversight office was set up, which he hopes the charter amendment will fix.

“The office is charged with overseeing the Sheriff’s Office, but yet the Sheriff’s Office is in a position to dictate the extent of the oversight,” he said, “It doesn’t allow you to really call a spade a spade or to hold anyone accountable. So it’s an inherently flawed system.”

Last year’s audit of OLEO reached a similar conclusion, saying “the subjects of oversight (for example, the Sheriff’s Office and its employees) effectively control the limits of its own oversight and its operations.”

Sili Savusa is a member of OLEO’s Citizen’s Committee, launched over a year ago. Savusa said she wants to help the sheriff’s office better connect with diverse communities in the county. Savusa is a Pacific Islander and says this group hasn’t typically had close relations with King County law enforcement.

“We feel like many of our relationships have been really around issues that have happened – gang violence – those kinds of issues that are negative,” she said.

“We feel we haven’t had the opportunity to build a positive relationship with folks in the Sheriff’s Office.”

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