by Paul Kiefer
(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
A pair of amendments to the King County charter on the ballot next month open a door for significant reshaping of the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO). The measures have sparked two opposition campaigns — one closely tied to the King County Police Officers’ Guild (KCPOG), which represents sheriff’s officers — that have cast the amendments as radical attacks on law enforcement, while the measures have received limited vocal support from the most prominent local police accountability advocates.
The first amendment, Charter Amendment 5, would make the King County Sheriff an appointed, rather than elected, position. The second, Charter Amendment 6, would grant the King County Council the ability to set the structure and duties of the sheriff rather than relying on the duties specified in the state code. While the amendments’ sponsors, including council members Rod Dembowski and Girmay Zahilay (who wrote a PubliCola op-ed supporting it), crafted the ballot measures to stand independently of one another, their practical implications and political significance have bonded the two measures together. In fact, in a July 14th council meeting, council member Claudia Balducci called them the legislative equivalent of a “Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup” — a natural pair.
For their most vocal proponents, namely Dembowski and Zahilay, the amendments are vital steps towards an accountable sheriff’s office with a more appropriate scope of duties and a sheriff who better represents the needs of the King County residents they serve. The opponents of the amendments, including KCPOG, cast the measures as part of the broader “defund” movement to undermine law enforcement and as a power grab by the executive and the Council.
As contemporary as those arguments may seem, they’re part of a longstanding debate in King County. In November, voters will face a choice between two paths for KCSO; both have been tested in the county before, and neither has transformed the department in the ways the amendments’ opponents fear or the ways their champions hope.
History of Elected vs. Appointed Sheriff in King County
King County first shifted to an appointed sheriff system in 1969, when the county’s new “home rule” charter went into effect, granting the county the ability to pass some laws that diverged from state law; the state constitution defines sheriff as an elected position. At the time, the decision to shift to an appointed sheriff was intended to promote greater accountability; in the decades prior, KCSO had been buffeted by corruption scandals and allegations of cronyism, resulting in the indictment of the King County Sheriff Jack Porter by a grand jury in 1969 for accepting bribes from a criminal syndicate. In doing so, King County became one of the 11 counties nationwide (out of more than 3,000) to appoint its sheriff.
King County’s sheriff was an appointed position until 1996, when King County voters approved a charter amendment that both made the job an elected position and prohibited the County Council from adjusting the duties of a sheriff laid out in state law. That decision followed a disagreement between then-county-executive Gary Locke and the County Council over Locke’s efforts to downsize the department: Locke had proposed cutting 34 officers from the department (5% of the force at the time) to adjust to a shrinking unincorporated King County, and the council resisted his proposal. Following that exchange, KCPOG spearheaded the campaign to return to the elected sheriff model used by the county from its founding in 1852 to 1969.
The debate surrounding the 1996 charter amendment raised two questions: whether electing a sheriff would politicize the position and whether an appointed sheriff improved the office’s accountability. Proponents of the measure, including KCPOG and the Republican majority on the County Council, argued that an elected sheriff could be more assertive in advocating for the department’s budget without fear of the executive removing them; that an elected sheriff system would draw local candidates with better knowledge of state law; and that an elected sheriff would be directly accountable to voters.
Opponents, including then-Seattle-mayor Norm Rice, argued that the switch to an appointed sheriff had effectively eliminated corruption within the department and that appointments allow the county to conduct a search for the best-qualified, credible candidate instead of the most effective campaigner.
The same debates have resurfaced around the two amendments that will appear on the November ballot, now colored by the new political atmosphere surrounding policing and law enforcement budgets.
Support for Charter Amendment 5
The push to return to an appointed sheriff began with the county’s Charter Review Commission, a group of 23 civilians appointed by the Council, which recommended the switch in May 2019. Commissioner Kinnon Williams told PubliCola that the measure is a “question of good governance.”
“If you look at every town and city in King County, they all appoint their police chief,” Williams said. “Why? Because the police chief is not supposed to be a politician. The police chief is supposed to be enforcing the laws, following the rules no matter what, and not catering to political whims or desires.”
As an appointed department head, the sheriff would be subordinate to the council, which would gain oversight over how the sheriff spends their department’s budget and the ability to replace the sheriff when they deem necessary. The Council would also conduct nationwide searches for candidates, as opposed to races between King County residents (as dictated by state law); additionally, state law does not require that sheriffs have a law enforcement background, so the Council could appoint a civilian to the role. Finally, the county executive would replace the sheriff as the county’s representative in the collective bargaining process with KCPOG and other unions representing employees of the sheriff’s office.
Both Williams and Dembowski told PubliCola that the elected sheriff system has given outsize power to the police union to influence the outcome of elections. “The guild has the power to put candidates forward, to promote them, to write the checks,” Dembowski said, “and that means we get candidates who will feel compelled to make the guild happy.”
(Current Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht didn’t receive any official campaign contributions or endorsements from unions representing KCSO employees; her opponent, former Sheriff John Urqhart, did). Williams added that sheriff elections open the door for intra-departmental conflict, especially if the incumbent sheriff retaliates against officers who support their opponent.
The measure’s proponents also argue that an appointed sheriff would be both a better representative of the communities they serve and a vital step towards an accountable sheriff’s office. As council members Dembowski and Zahilay argued during Council discussions in July, a shrinking portion of the county’s residents are actually in the primary jurisdiction of the sheriff’s office, and therefore their voices are drowned out in a general election. In contrast, Williams said, seven of the nine Council members represent some portion of unincorporated King County and could elevate the voices of those residents. Dembowski told PubliCola if the charter were amended, the Council would consult with not only residents of unincorporated areas and contract cities but also “immigrants and refugees, civil rights leaders, police reform folks, [and] law enforcement” to make appointment decisions.
“There is a measure of accountability in an election,” Dembowski said, “but it’s not very precise. It’s delayed, and accountability delayed is often accountability denied. As civilian elected leaders, we can’t take any corrective action against the sheriff.”
While Dembowski and other amendment supporters made clear that the amendment isn’t a referendum on Sheriff Mitzi Johanknicht’s job performance, he said the Council has been frustrated by a lack of transparency from the sheriff’s office in recent years.
Referring to reforms recommended by the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight in the past three years, most of which the sheriff’s office did not adopt, Dembowski said, “Their position is, ‘I’m separately elected, so I won’t share budget information with you, I won’t implement your reforms, I’ll leave them to die on the vine.’”
The measure is supported by an activist coalition of non-lawyers affiliated with (but not employed by) the ACLU of Washington, ACLU People Power. However, a statement provided to PubliCola by the official organization said that because “[It] has yet to be seen whether appointment by elected officials will provide a sufficient safeguard against the politicization of public safety,” they won’t take a position on the amendment.
Even some supporters of the amendment acknowledged that uncertainty: In the meeting on July 14, council member Claudia Balducci qualified her support of the measure, saying “there’s definitely a possibility of switching from one method of selection to another and have similar problems, or even the exact same problems.” She ultimately supported putting the amendment to the voters, she said, because “we’re in a moment when people are looking for change. Even change that could be more neutral or isn’t guaranteed to create the policy outcomes you want, shakes things up enough for you to try.”
Opposition to Charter Amendment 5
The measure’s opponents cast the amendment as a means of consolidating power in the hands of the Council and the county executive. “This is ultimately a weakening of the checks and balances system,” Stan Seo, a KCSO Captain and the spokesperson for the Save Our Sheriff campaign, told PubliCola. Glenn Williams, the chair of another opposition campaign called Keep Our Sheriff Elected, echoed Seo, arguing that the amendment would enable the Council to slash the sheriff’s budget without the input of the sheriff; he pointed to proposed staffing reductions made in response to COVID-related revenue shortfalls as evidence of the Council and executive’s intent to “dismantle” the department.
As opponents see it, an elected sheriff can prioritize the public’s safety over their job security, suggesting that an appointed sheriff would be pressured to appease the County Council, not the voters. Where possible election-related tensions within the department are concerned, Williams told PubliCola that there is no incentive for employees of the sheriff’s office or the unions that represent them to get involved in campaigns for sheriff. “It’s not in their interest to do that,” he said. “[An officer] doesn’t know who’s going to get elected. They have to maintain a working relationship with whoever comes in, and it’s impossible to do that if you campaigned against them.” Therefore, he contended, fear of retaliation by the sheriff is itself enough to prevent campaign politics from becoming an issue for the sheriff’s office. (Fear of retaliation has not prevented these conflicts in the past: in 2017, the union representing some high-ranking KCSO officers filed an unfair labor practices complaint with the state against Urqhart after he apparently threatened to “destroy” officers who backed Johanknecht.)
Neither Seo nor Glenn Williams saw any reason to look beyond King County for candidates for sheriff. “When it comes right down to it, law enforcement and public safety is a local issue,” Seo said, “because the rules, the laws, the policies, the case law, are very specific to a state.” Williams also called into question the council’s past record of accountability-related appointments as a reason to doubt their qualifications to appoint a sheriff. “Look at their appointments for the director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight,” he said. “One resigned, the next one doesn’t get their contract renewed. That’s not a good sign.” (Williams was referring to Charles Gaither, who stepped down after conflicts with then-Sheriff John Urquhart in 2014, and Debora Jacobs, whose contract the Council chose not to renew in September).
The Relationship Between Charter Amendments 5 and 6
While Charter Amendment 5 may be less clearly linked to the recent protests, Dembowski said Charter Amendment 6 is “the fruit of this summer’s police reform movement.”
The amendment would give the Council the ability to change the duties of the sheriff’s office (though not to abolish the position), and the Council crafted the amendment so that it can pass independently of Charter Amendment 5.
However, it remains unclear how the Council would enforce adjustments to KCSO’s duties if the sheriff remains an elected position. “If [Charter Amendment 6] passed and 5 did not,” Glenn Williams told PubliCola, “it would put the sheriff in an interesting position. They would still have the duty to every resident of the county to be the chief executive officer and conservator of the peace, so if the Council says anything they don’t agree with, they might be able to ignore it.”
Paul Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive Magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He was recently hired on as the police accountability reporter for PubliCola.
Featured image: King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht by Susan Fried.