A new audit found serious deficiencies in how the King County Sheriff's Office investigates use of force by its deputies and how it follows up on citizen complaints, confirming many of the same problems exposed in a KING 5 investigative series.
The review, conducted by the Los Angeles-based Police Assessment Resource Center and to be released Tuesday, concludes that the King County Sheriff's Office routinely rules that officer-involved shootings are justified without conducting a serious review of the incidents.
In 15 recent shooting reviews, the audit found that none of the deputies involved was ever interviewed in person. And in each case, reviewers ruled unanimously to exonerate the deputies.
The audit also found that in the majority of officer-involved shootings, review boards provided no specific explanation for why the shootings were classified as justified.
In one example, auditors found that no review was ever conducted of a 2009 incident in which Deputy Matt Paul slammed an innocent man into a wall in downtown Seattle, causing permanent brain damage.
The victim, Chris Harris, had run from deputies, but witnesses said Harris was surrendering before Paul tackled him. Paul's commanders called the use of force justified, but the Internal Investigations Unit never looked at the case -- even after the county paid a record $10 million settlement to the family.
The Sheriff at that time, Sue Rahr, said such a review wasn't necessary. “There was no evidence of misconduct on the part of Deputy Paul. He reacted to the circumstances presented to him,” Rahr told KING 5 in May 2011. "We've debated this a lot -- what could he [Paul] have done differently? We don't have an answer," Rahr said.
But after their review the auditors said "the conclusion that the use of force was justified 'lacked a substantial basis in fact,'" leading the auditors to "question the department's capacity to fairly judge its own deputies.”
It was the KING 5 Investigators who reviewed Paul's entire personnel file, finding a pattern of him using unnecessary force. After presenting those findings to Rahr, Harris was put on a personal improvement plan.
The audit is the second in two months to detail lax accountability at the Sheriff's Office.
Late Monday, Sheriff Steve Strachan told KING 5 the sheriff’s office is a good department but can and must do better.
"This is a constructive and helpful audit. I look forward to it and the fact is it's what we've been doing all along. It's going to help us move to best practices, it's exactly where we're going at the King County Sheriff's Office," said Strachan.
The audit was commissioned by King County's Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) which was established to fix problems uncovered six years ago in the sheriff's office. There were numerous delays in funding OLEO and hiring a director, so it has only been up and running since late last year. OLEO will officially present the audit to the King County Council Tuesday morning, including 25 recommended changes.
One of the recommendations is to beef up staffing in OLEO, which auditors found to be “understaffed to an astonishing degree.”