FILE — Washington King County Sheriff

King County Sheriff's deputies patrol by bicycle in Washington state.

(The Center Square) — A ballot measure this November could see King County voters lose the right to choose their sheriffs, a scenario that does not sit well with members of Washington law enforcement.

Over the past century and a half, King County sheriffs have been both appointed and elected. Between 1852 and 1969, the King County sheriff was an elected position.

The passage of the Home Rule Charter in 1968 replaced many elected officials with appointed positions. By 1996, the sheriff was once again elected by voters, who then chose former U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert as King County sheriff in 1997. 

Today, every sheriff's office in Washington's 39 counties are elected to office.

King County Charter Amendment No. 5 would once again grant the King County Council the power to handpick sheriffs.

The legislation originated from a 2018 report from the 23 volunteer members of the King County Charter Review Commission, which overwhelmingly recommended returning the sheriff’s office to an appointed position.

In the report, commission members overwhelmingly concluded that such a change would allow the public to better hold the office accountable in between elections.

Members of the commission at the time included a range of politicians, lawyers, and activists including Casa Latina Executive Director Marcos Martinez, former Washington Sen. Joe Fain, and Creative Justice Case Manager Nikkita Oliver, who ran for mayor of Seattle in 2017.

Amendment No. 5 was voted out of committee this summer by King County Council members Girmay Zahilay, Jeanne Kohl-Welles, Joe McDermott and Rod Dembowski. Council members Kathy Lambert, Pete von Reichbauer and Reagan Dunn voted against it.

King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht has voiced strong opposition to Amendment No. 5 along with a number of law enforcement officials.

“We believe voters want a fully independent sheriff, who is free to take bold action on reforms and represent all of the communities and interests of our diverse constituency,” Johanknecht told the King County Council in July.

Dembowski argued during a June 13 committee meeting that making the sheriff’s office an appointed position could depoliticize the position.

“We would have a sheriff who would come from a pool of folks beyond just those who are willing to stand for election,” Dembowski said.

Another measure, King County Charter Amendment No. 6, would place the sheriff’s duties in the hands of the King County Council to legislate.

For Captain Stan Seo, a veteran of the King County Sheriff’s Office for more than 26 years, the politicization of the office by a handful of elected officials is worse.

Seo is the spokesperson for the “Save our Sheriff” campaign that opposes Amendments No. 5 and No. 6.

“Charter Amendment No. 5 takes away the right to vote for their sheriff and puts them in the hands of 10 individuals,” Seo said. “An appointed sheriff is only beholden to those who approve and hire them. And I think from an accountability standpoint, that is in the opposite direction that you want to go.”

As elected officials, according to Seo, law enforcement stands a better chance of voicing disagreement with leaders while still keeping their jobs.

To Seo, Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best’s resignation amid criticism by the Seattle City Council exemplified the pressures that appointed law enforcement officials can be under.

The King County Sheriff's Office employs more than 1,000 staff members serving 2.2 million residents, but racial disparities continue to characterize the office's use of force in recent years.

Between 2014 and 2019, about 29 percent of 1,096 recorded uses of force by county deputies involved Black subjects, King County data showed. Only 7 percent of King County residents were identified as Black, according to U.S. Census data.

The majority of subjects in that time – 61 percent total – physically resisted deputies while 5 percent of subjects used a weapon of any kind. Around 75 percent of subjects were injured by deputies while 21 percent of deputies experienced injuries from subjects.

King County data show that tasers were deputies’ typical weapon of choice when using force – 46 percent of the time – while firearms were used 1 percent of the time.

Neck restraints accounted for 1 percent of physical force used by deputies, whereas grabbing and pulling were used 67 percent of the time.

According to a 2008 sheriff's office survey, 53 percent of respondents surveyed described the King County Sheriff's Office as "irresponsible" with taxpayer money despite 57 percent of respondents describing deputies as effective in solving their problem.

The King County Sheriff’s Office made up 21.6 percent of the county’s $1.8 billion 2019-2020 budget, or $401.7 million. Adult and juvenile detention made up another 17.6 percent of the budget, or $327 million. Community and human services, by contrast, made up just 1 percent of the budget $24 million.

For Rev. Harriet Walden, a member of Seattle's Community Policing Commission and Mothers for Police Accountability, elections make the King County Sheriff's Office more accountable than otherwise.

Walden acknowledged that while qualified sheriff candidates should have plenty of experience policing King County, it can be hard for them to bring fresh perspectives to the office.

“You cannot have someone who has not been a sheriff or been part of that rank and file come in and run for sheriff,” Walden said. "The challenger would have to come from the inside. So I can see where the King County Council is coming from.”

Any eligible King County voter may run for sheriff as a candidate, but they must finish basic law enforcement training their first year in office.

For Walden, legislating the sheriff's duties would be redundant when local and state law already spell out so much of the sheriff's duties.

The duties of the King County Sheriff make up 363 words of the King county charter. The Revised Code of Washington outlines an additional 1,773 words on county sheriff's duties. 

For Seo, partnerships between law enforcement and social services are critical to serving communities, but law enforcement will likely be the only service in place to respond to mental health cases in the long-term.

“When people call 911, they’re really needing help right now,” Seo said. “The only system available for help right now is police, fire, and EMS.”

In the last five years, mental health cases accounted for 20 percent of the King County Sheriff’s use of force, according to King County data.

Activists including such groups as Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County have called on Washington leaders to reallocate law enforcement funding to expand social services.

The King County Sheriff's Office has largely avoided the kind of budget cuts the Seattle Police Department has seen over the summer.

Walden said the sheriff's office is in need of change, but voiced doubt that social programs could be set up anytime soon. Moreover, small cities in King County with even smaller police departments would be hard pressed to renegotiate their contacts with the King County Sheriff's Office, Walden said.

“There’s just absolutely some changes that need to be made, but there’s nothing in place today that could take it to the next level,” Walden said. “You’ve got to build something. You can’t get rid of what you have. You can’t just get rid of the shelter you have and wait to build a new one. You have to enhance what’s already there.”

King County voters will decide the future of the ballot measures on Nov. 3.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.