Former sheriff’s spokesman seeks top job, vows reform



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Posted on September 3, 2012 at 9:45 PM

Updated Monday, Sep 3 at 10:50 PM

John Urquhart was surprised when we asked him to read a letter we dug up in his personnel file.

"This letter is dated June 11, 1980, apparently an application I put into the King County Sheriff's Office.  It says ‘police work has always held a certain fascination for me. My enjoyment of the work and sense of fulfillment comes of course from the community service aspect’” said Urquhart.

Apparently his words were convincing.  Urquhart was hired as a part time reserve deputy. In 1988 he went full time and his career took off.

Urquhart showed us the awards and photos he has mounted on the wall of his campaign office, which is located in his home on Mercer Island.

There are pictures of him working patrol and undercover vice and an award from 1991 when he was named Officer of the Year for his precinct.

“That was pretty significant for me, because it was voted on by my peers,” said Urquhart.

The next year---he was officer of the year for the entire department. Soon, Urquhart wasn't just another deputy behind a badge, but the face of the Sheriff's Office. 

As media relations officer under two sheriff’s (Dave Reichert and Sue Rahr) Urquhart gained a reputation for being candid, accessible, and sometimes a little quirky.   He once released a stick figure sketch of a robbery suspect complete with flies buzzing around the man's scruffy head.

"You look at my biography--everywhere I've gone, everything I've done, I've been a leader,” said Urquhart.

Urquhart admits his confidence can come off as something else.

"I plead guilty to holding people accountable, I plead guilty to having high standards and yeah, there may be a bit of arrogance in me from time to time. Oh well!" he said.

It got him in hot water in 2003 when he went to the Burien precinct to oversee deputies as a Sergeant.

"I was trying to hold people accountable, trying to get them to do their job the right way and they hadn't been held accountable for quite some time and they reacted to that…by filing complaints,” said Uruqhart.

According to his personnel file, deputies complained Urquhart created a hostile work environment, that they were ridiculed, embarrassed, and humiliated at roll calls.

They said he made a sexist comment over the radio and harassed both male and female deputies without cause.

After a four month internal investigation, Urquhart was cleared of everything except violating performance standards by lowering morale with his management style.  He got corrective counseling.

KING 5 asked:  “Do you think you did anything wrong? “

Urquhart said: “No.  As I said, I could mellow out a little bit, but no.  No.”

He returned to media relations, getting commendations and exceptional performance appraisals for his leadership, professionalism and teamwork.

But last fall, Urquhart announced he was done.

"It's just time, ready to go do something else,” he said.

He vowed to trade in his badge for a beach in Hawaii.  But in April he was back, announcing he was a candidate for the office of King County Sheriff.

Urquhart said impassioned calls from department insiders lured him out of retirement.

"What I heard was ‘this place is going to hell in a hand basket you need to come back,’" he said.

Urquhart claims that his opponent Steve Strachan had gutted internal investigations and weakened policies that held deputies and their supervisors accountable during his three months as appointed sheriff and during the prior year when he ran the office as the chief deputy.

"He's the one that set this fire.  These things weren't happening--we didn't have this situation when Sue Rahr was the Sheriff," said Urquhart.

"My campaign is based on leadership, accountability and transparency,” he said.

But says there's one thing that will never change—the passion for police work he expressed in that application letter 32 years ago.

“I’ve found it is one of the few human endeavors where an individual can make a tremendous difference—from a small, relatively insignificant incident to a literally life or death situation” he wrote in that letter.

"I still feel exactly the same way about my career choice and my work,” said Urquhart, “and now it’s the same exact reason—community service, to make people’s lives’ better, that I want to be the Sheriff.

Urquhart is 64 years old.  He’s married and has two grown daughters.