An appointed sheriff and expanded civilian oversight of the King County Sheriff’s Office are two of several proposed changes to the county’s charter — moves that the charter review commission said could facilitate greater transparency in the agency.
The recommendations were part of a report the commission submitted Feb. 19 to the King County Council and outline a number of ways the charter could be revised. Law enforcement amendments mark some of the most noticeable suggested changes to the county’s guiding document.
The commission report recommended that the sheriff’s position become an appointed position instead of elected. It recommends that the county executive select a sheriff, who would then be confirmed by the county council.
Tim Ceis, of CBE Strategic and a commission member, said the commission weighed the pros and cons associated with moving to an appointed sheriff.
“[An] election didn’t necessarily guarantee that you would get the person you needed to either run the department, or in the case of needing to bring change or reform to the department, could be committed to doing that,” he said.
The sheriff’s position was an elected one for decades until the 1960s, when scandals and charges of corruption led voters in the county to enact a Home Rule charter, changing the position to an appointed one. This remained until 1996, when voters in the county approved another charter amendment to make the sheriff an elected official.
However, since then the commission report states the population has become more diverse, and the public has become more aware of problems with biased policing. The report also stated that a smaller percentage of people who vote in the sheriff’s election race are actually served by the department.
The report argues that giving the power to approve the sheriff to the county council — with representatives of unincorporated areas — could increase accountability. Appointment would also increase accountability to the county council and executive for performance as well as complying with county ordinances and policies.
It would also allow the county executive to conduct nationwide candidate searches, instead of restricting the pool to deputies who already live in the county.
This was an important piece for commissioners, said Toby Nixon, a Kirkland City Council member who also sat on the charter review commission.
“It was that ability to find the most qualified person, regardless of whether they lived here or not, that was really what most people were in support of,” Nixon said.
This change would make King County unique in the state, as all other counties run elections for their top law enforcement position. The Washington State Sheriffs’ Association has also come out against moving to an appointed position in a March 2019 letter.
“Our members feel very strongly that the direct accountability and responsiveness to voters is a critical aspect of the office of sheriff,” the letter reads.
Dozens of comments were also submitted by citizens urging the commission to keep the position an elected one. The King County Sheriff’s Office also issued a response via email.
“We don’t believe it is ever a good idea to take away a vote from the people. A separately elected Sheriff is an independent Sheriff who can set priorities for law enforcement based on community desires and needs. An elected Sheriff answers to the people, not other politicians. Those backing the notion of an appointed Sheriff are effectively saying the people cannot be trusted to make this important choice,” it reads.
However, Ceis said there was a general feeling among the commission that the Sheriff’s Office was lagging behind in terms of its internal practices when compared to Seattle’s police department, which has an appointed police chief. A separately elected sheriff can create barriers to accountability, he said, although the commission did say the recommendation was not aimed at the current Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht.
“It makes it challenging for there to be any checks and balances on the department when you have an elected sheriff,” Ceis said.
Nixon agreed, saying since the sheriff’s position was moved to an elected one, every sheriff has come from within the office. This can lead to not only internal strife and politicking, but a reluctance to make changes.
“It’s hard to imagine if it’s always going to be an insider of the Sheriff’s Office who gets elected, how would you ever be able to implement any kind of fundamental cultural change in the office if it’s always an insider,” Nixon said.
As part of the change, bargaining over deputies’ contracts would be handled by the county executive and the King County Police Officers Guild, which represents them. Currently, the executive represents the county on financial matters while the sheriff represents the county on work conditions and policy matters.
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