King County promised to overhaul its Sheriff's Office in 2006. But the reports by county auditors and a team of outside police experts found serious lapses, including lax oversight, failure to investigate complaints and a tolerance of deputy misconduct.
Rob Davis, former Police Chief of San Jose who helped conduct the audit noted a systemic “failure to supervise and lack of penalties for supervisors failing to follow up on misconduct or policy violations.”
The audit was presented to the King County Council’s Committee on Government Accountability, Oversight and Financial Performance. It found that officer involved shootings weren’t being reviewed, even when someone died, and complaints about excessive force weren’t getting to internal investigations.
Auditors reported that while one point nine million people live in King County, the Sheriff’s Office conducted only two Use of Force Investigations in all of 2011. By comparison, Portland, with a population of 580,000, did 41. Eugene, Oregon, a city of 156,000 residents, did 14. The numbers caused auditors to question whether the Sheriff’s Office was even accepting complaints from citizens.
Sheriff Steve Strachan said he’s already starting making changes including beefing up staffing in the Internal Investigations Unit. Strachan said he now requires commanders to give him monthly reports on use of force by deputies.
"My sense is that we have a very fragmented system for taking and dealing with use of force incidents and complaints from the public,” Strachan said. He said the audit provides a blueprint for moving forward.
"It's a massive culture change to ensure that we're being effective and accountable and respectful,” said Strachan.
Similar changes were promised six years ago. Then Sheriff Sue Rahr formed a Blue Ribbon Panel and promised reforms in response to a newspaper series “Conduct Unbecoming” which exposed a pattern of deputy misconduct and lax oversight.
“How is it going to be different?” said Strachan, ’It’s going to be different because now I am the Sheriff; I am telling you what we’re going to do and I’m asking you to let me show you.”
Auditors placed some blame for the failures on the police union for blocking attempts to hold deputies accountable.
“I’m challenging the leadership of the guild to come forward,” Councilmember Patterson said. “They should be here today (at the council committee hearing). Shame on the Guild leadership for not being in the room here today,” she said.
Councilmember Bob Ferguson said that “the audit reveals alarming shortcomings in the Sheriff’s Office internal investigation processes and accountability systems that are unacceptable.”
Since March, the Guild has filed three grievances against Charles Gaither, the Director of the Officer of Law Enforcement Oversight, who was hired to monitor investigations and increase public trust in the Sheriff’s Office.
Gaither said the biggest obstacle he’s faced since he was hired in October, has been “the union and their unwillingness to work with us collaboratively.”
Altogether the auditors recommended 16 fixes, but some of the key changes wouldn’t be allowed in the existing police guild contract. That contract expires in December and a lot of the reforms will depend on what happens with the next contract. For the first time it won’t be just the King County Executive negotiating with the Police Officers Guild—the Sheriff will have a seat at the table.
The King County Police Officers Guild did not return calls for comment.
Read the Performance Audit:
Read Statements by Council Members: