The Position of King County Sheriff Could Become an Appointed One. Here’s Why That Matters.

by Carolyn Bick

For 25 years, voters who live in King County’s 12 unincorporated areas that do not have their own police departments have seen their already-small power over who enforces the laws in their communities dwindle. Since the position of King County sheriff became an elected one in 1996, more and more people have moved to cities that have their own police departments. Today, just 11% of voters live in unincorporated King County.

But why do these numbers matter?

Though they have their own police departments and remain largely unaffected by the King County Sheriff’s Department, the other 89% of King County residents who live in places with dedicated police departments still hold an overwhelming amount of power over the office. This means that, at the end of the day, they get to choose the head of an office that, ultimately, has little bearing on their lives, but has a substantial impact on the lives of their unincorporated neighbors.

That could change as soon as this November. 

At the King County Council’s Committee of the Whole meeting on July 14, a proposal sponsored by Councilmember Rod Dembowski that would convert the position of sheriff from an elected one to one appointed by the King County executive and confirmed by the King County Council passed by a vote of 6–3, with a do-pass recommendation. The proposal will be taken up at the next Council meeting on July 21.

Since 1852, the position of sheriff has vacillated between elected and appointed. Between 1852 and 1969, the position was an elected one, until voters in 1968 adopted a Home Rule Charter that transferred the choice of sheriff to the King County executive. More than two decades later, in November 1996’s election, voters chose to return the power to choose a sheriff to themselves, where it has stayed ever since. The sheriff’s department serves as all of unincorporated King County’s police department, as unincorporated areas of King County are not governed by a local municipal body and therefore have no police departments.

But, as the Charter Commission argued in its presentation to the King County Council on July 14, this doesn’t mean keeping the position as an elected one is truly democratic. The commission, whose members have been weighing the proposal for more than a year, came out strongly in favor of returning the position to an appointed one for several reasons King County Charter Review Commissioners David Heller and Kinnon Williams, who attended the virtual meeting, laid out for the council in a short presentation.

For one, the position could be filled by someone from another state entirely. Though the commission didn’t necessarily consider this particular point several months ago, the commissioners said, at a time when the country is seeing upheavals and broad reimagining of what true public safety looks like, it might be necessary to expand the pool of qualified candidates, in order to foster real change. 

The commission also found that law enforcement officers who have won in elections for sheriff have routinely come out of the office, which further limits the scope of candidates. It can also lead to a politicization of the office and questionable internal favoritism, Dembowski said in a later phone call with the Emerald.

Currently, seven of the nine total King County Council districts include unincorporated areas. Allowing the sheriff to be appointed would therefore mean that voters in unincorporated King County would have greater say over who runs the department responsible for law enforcement within their communities.

Moreover, as the Charter Commission’s report noted, a disproportionate number of King County residents already belong to cities like Seattle that have their own police forces. This means that these city residents are usually less affected by the King County Sheriff’s Department than King County residents living in unincorporated King County areas, like Skyway.

“The voice of those being policed by the sheriff’s department is really outweighed and smothered, if you will, by a broader electorate,” Dembowski said in his later phone call with the Emerald. “I would rather elevate the voice of Councilmember [Girmay] Zahilay, who knows the needs of the residents of Skyway, is connected with them, and who can bring their concerns to the appointment process in a very direct way.”

Turning over the reins to the King County executive and council would also ensure that King County residents and their elected officials could hold the sheriff and the King County Sheriff’s department more accountable for the sheriff’s actions. The commission pointed to other areas of Washington State, where elected sheriffs operate as almost extra-governmental entities, deciding what laws they will and will not enforce. An appointed sheriff would remove that subjective decision-making, the commission argued, because the sheriff could be removed immediately, rather than through the long process of a recall election.

The original amendment also came with a striking amendment that proposed turning over the duties and structure of the sheriff’s department to the King County Council and executive. It would also remove the prohibition against abolishing or combining the sheriff’s department with another agency. However, after a brief discussion, Dembowski proposed during the meeting that the council hold said striking amendment until next week, so that the council can get community input on the matter.

With regards to the idea that the sheriff’s office could be abolished, Dembowski said in his later phone call that any resident who is concerned about that is likely responding to what he called “scare tactics by those who want to preserve the status quo.”

“I don’t believe that there is any kind of consensus to abolish the sheriff’s office. That’s just not going to happen, and I don’t think that’s the will of the community,” Dembowski said. “But I do think that there is a strong desire in the community, an incredible awakening … for serious structural reform and that we should look at what core functions we really want the police to do.”

And those core functions, Zahilay said during the council meeting, should not include things like armed officers on traffic duty; armed officers responding to homelessness or mental health crises; or armed officers responding to run-of-the-mill noise complaints.

“If we had a better system, where we divest from this current system, and move into a system that tailors our response to the challenges that we see on the ground, we could be in a much better position,” Zahilay said. “Currently, we have so many legal and structural obstacles as a council to implementing this better vision of public safety.”

Some of these barriers include the council’s inability to direct the duties of the sheriff’s office. From the outside, this might seem innocuous. However, Dembowski explained in the phone call, this has created problems.

For instance, several ago, he said, the council earmarked funds specifically for additional de-escalation training within the King County Sheriff’s Department. But because the council ultimately could not legally direct the use of those funds, the sheriff’s office used them to “supplant existing training on tasers, and then spent the balance of the money that they didn’t have to spend on the budget for tasers on other items.”

“So, there was an example of where we were trying to advance policy to de-escalate and reduce uses of force. The independently elected sheriff’s office said, ‘Thanks for the money, we’ll use it for something else,’” Dembowski said. “You wouldn’t get that with the appointment situation, because there is just a more direct line of authority.”

Dembowski also said that such a system would also help prevent the practices and lack of reform that contributed to the recent murders of 20-year-old Tommy Le and 17-year-old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens in 2017.

“I think there is value in being able to implement policies that are more reflective of a broader set of views than of, by, and for law enforcement. I think it should be of, by, and for the community,” Dembowski said. “I think you get that with an appointed sheriff.”

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here and here.