by Carolyn Bick
The King County Sheriff’s Office has fired Detective Michael Brown over social media posts he made both during the summer’s protests and in the hours following a specific hit-and-run that killed protestor Summer Taylor and seriously injured another protestor, Diaz Love, including a post that read, “All Lives Splatter.” It took eight months for the Office to fire Brown following his initial posts. The Office also took into account past sustained violations on his record.
The Emerald first broke the news that King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) Undersheriff Patti Cole-Tindall would be recommending that the Office fire Brown in October 2020. The KCSO announced in a Feb. 12 press release that Brown had been fired effective Feb. 11 and included Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht’s Loudermill results letter, which the Office sent to Brown on Feb. 10. According to the letter, of the three allegations against Brown, the Office exonerated him on the allegation of serious misconduct and sustained the allegations against him of misconduct and violation of performance standards.
The KCSO said that it began the investigation into Brown’s posts on July 6, 2020. In November 2020, Brown “exercised his right, per a collective bargaining agreement, to an in-person hearing with Sheriff Mitzi G Johanknecht to provide his perspective.”
The Loudermill results letter, which addresses Brown directly, cites several of Brown’s social media posts beginning on June 1. The June 1 post read, “When in doubt … Knock em out,” in reference to a video of a Black woman punching an officer, after which the officer’s partner punches her into apparent unconsciousness.
The letter notes other posts of a similar tone, including one about protestors spitting out their teeth; a posts using threatening and aggressive wording against protestors in the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP); the “All Lives Splatter” post; and an associated post that read, “I see a couple of people got infected with Covid-19 from the hood of a car on 1-5 last night.”
The letter says that the King County Police Officers Guild (KCPOG) “argued the case was not ‘complete’ because other subjects in the investigation had not yet been notified of the results of the investigation. The Guild also argued that termination was too severe, and not consistent with progressive discipline given your [Brown’s] history and because this recommendation is harsher than other comparable discipline.”
The letter notes that, during the in-person hearing with Johanknecht, Brown said he had made those posts on his private Facebook page and that he hadn’t made the posts or comments when he was on duty. The letter said Brown expressed regret over “making the postings and understood that others might perceive them in an entirely different light. You also expressed that sometimes your biggest enemies are wearing the same uniform.”
Johanknecht said in the letter that she disagreed with KCPOG, regarding the completeness of the investigation.
“The investigation concerning you was thorough and complete. I reject the argument that your case can’t proceed in process because other accused subjects’ independent actions and investigations are not completed. There is an opportunity for you to raise any additional facts regarding comparable discipline through the grievance process. I believe you’re deferring blame to others who had access to your postings and may have shared them for a variety of reasons. Your presentation was brief and fell short of accepting responsibility, or demonstrating that you understood what was wrong with your conduct,” the letter reads.
Johanknecht also said in the letter that the decision required an analysis of Brown’s First Amendment rights to determine whether the content was a public concern.
“I concur that in every post but one, the public interest in discourse on these topics was outweighed by the disruption and harm to the King County Sheriff’s Office and its ability to effectively carry out its law enforcement mission,” the letter reads. “The climate during the summer was highly charged surrounding at least two issues of use of force by law enforcement and racial injustice across our nation.
“The volume of complaints concerning your series of posts caused a significant slowdown in the work of the Internal Investigations Unit in order for them to review, document, process and investigate hundreds of complaints,” the letter continues. “These complaints came through the Executive’s Office, the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, [Internal Investigations Unit] IIU, and direct emails to me. The overwhelming negative response made clear that confidence and trust in the Sheriff’s Office was badly damaged by your actions and social media posts.”
Johanknecht includes a detailed analysis of each of Brown’s posts, followed by an explanation of her decisions regarding each of the three allegations against him. She said that she would not sustain the charge of Serious Misconduct, which covers “Discrimination, Harassment, Incivility, and Bigotry,” apparently solely because “This policy applies to ‘on duty’ conduct, and this conduct occurred off duty.”
Johanknecht did sustain the allegation of Misconduct, in the category called “Conduct Unbecoming,” which means “behavior that generally tends to: Diminish respect for the Sheriff’s Office or member. Diminish confidence in the operation of the Sheriff’s Office. Adversely affect or impair the efficiency of a member. Adversely affect the morale or discipline of the Sheriff’s Office.”
She also sustained the allegation that Brown violated the Office’s social media policy, which includes any posts “containing excessive name calling, profanity, fighting words, discriminatory epithets, sexual harassment, bullying, or gruesome language.”
In explaining her rationale for firing Brown, Johanknecht drew a comparison between Brown’s behavior and an unidentified captain’s, who posted “a widely circulating video of a gang of black people attacking and robbing a 15-year old black girl stealing the shoes off her feet. The captain wrote: ‘Animals. This is what the inner city gives us these days,’ as well as “several other instances of improper Facebook posts” that “resulted in written reprimands.” However, Johanknecht distinguished this captain’s comparably light discipline from the discipline imposed on Brown because “there was not the outrage and extremely harmful, negative and damaging effect to the Sheriffs Office that your posts and comments created locally and nationwide.”
She also cited “sustained violations for Conduct Criminal in nature and Conduct Unbecoming for a series of incidents in 2013 that occurred in Chelan County.
“Local law enforcement approached you when they suspected that you had driven while under the influence of intoxicants. You were suspected of hit and run with property damage to a rockery. When contacted by Chelan law enforcement you appeared impaired and your communications were extremely unprofessional, reflecting poorly on the agency,” the letter reads.
For this, Brown received a one-day suspension.
Given Brown’s history, Johanknecht said in the letter, as well as the posts for which the KCSO had been investigating him, Johanknecht found fit to fire Brown.
The press release does not note who specifically within the KCSO recommended that Brown be fired — it simply says that “The discipline proposed to the Sheriff was termination of Brown’s employment” — but based on the Emerald’s previous reporting, it would appear that Undersheriff Cole-Tindall was among those who made this proposition.
CORRECTION: The Emerald originally mistakenly wrote that Brown himself made the post referring to Black people as “animals.”
Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. As the Emerald’s Watchdragon reporter, they dive deep into local issues to keep the public informed and ensure those in positions of power are held accountable for their actions. You can reach them here and can check out their work here and here.
Featured Image: A stylized detail of a photo from the Emerald archives.
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