‘A Failed Leader’: Momentum Builds in Demands for Sheriff Johanknecht’s Resignation

by Carolyn Bick

At the 43:22 timestamp in a video of a nearly two-hour King County Council meeting regarding the shooting death of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht gets up and walks out of the room, before any members of the community speak, and before Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens’s mother starts to read the last poem her son wrote before police shot and killed him in 2017.

“I have to get on to the next thing,” Johanknecht says, looking at the watch on her left wrist.

It’s unknown what the next “thing” was for Johanknecht at the time, but the “thing” at which she had just appeared was a full King County Council meeting on Feb. 25, 2020, to specifically discuss a presentation of the findings of the independent investigation commissioned by the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight that looked into the circumstances of the shooting death of 17-year-old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens at the hands of King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) deputies in a botched sting operation, as well as the KCSO’s handling of the internal investigation into the shooting itself. Dunlap-Gittens’s family settled out of court with King County for $2.25 million in May 2020.

One year later, Johanknecht’s conduct at that February 2020 meeting is still a painful memory for members of Not This Time, a group that advocates for police accountability and reform, and works to provide communities and families with support and safety. To them, it demonstrated just how little Johanknecht cares about the community she is supposed to serve.

“She did not remain in the courtroom to hear [Mi’Chance’s] mom [Alexis Dunlap Francois] read his poem that Chance had written before he died. She did not remain in there to hear his dad and all the Not This Time members, community members — many people spoke,” Not This Time Outreach Coordinator Nina Gregory said in an April 1 interview with the Emerald. “She got up and walked out. That is disrespect to the family and the community.”

For Not This Time, this feeling of disrespect and disregard was underscored once again in two recent, separate revelations involving Johanknecht. The first was a revelation that a KCSO officer involved in Dunlap-Gittens’ shooting death faced little discipline — and recently got promoted — despite sharing a Facebook post with his own commentary, in which he compared Black children to animals.

The second was an internal email Johanknecht sent to members of the KCSO and others last week, after the family of a young man whom a KCSO deputy shot and killed in 2017 settled a four-year legal battle out of court with the County for $5 million. The sheriff’s post-settlement email characterized the young man, 20-year-old Vietnamese American student Tommy Le, as a threat and the shooter deputy as simply doing his part to protect the citizenry. This email also appeared to characterize the outcome of any potential legal proceedings that would have otherwise gone forward, had a settlement not been reached, as based on emotion rather than facts. 

Johanknecht failed to mention in this email that then-Deputy Cesar Molina shot Le within minutes of getting to the scene, and shot the young man twice in the back and once in the back of the hand. While this indicates Le was at least running away from Molina as he shot him, the Emerald uncovered documents showing that Le may have been either falling to or facedown on the ground; and that Le may not have had anything in his hands to present a threat to deputies, despite the KCSO first falsely claiming he had a knife and then sticking to claims that he had a pen. The KCSO has never acknowledged in any public written statement that Molina shot Le in the back.

Following the revelation of this email, both elected King County leaders and community members alike have come forward to demand Johanknecht’s resignation, but the community groups with whom the Emerald spoke highlighted the fact that Not This Time was the first community group to publicly call for Johanknecht’s resignation.

Not This Time held a press conference on March 12 alongside other police accountability organizations and family members who had lost loved ones to police deadly use of force. In that press conference, the group called for Johanknecht’s resignation, due to the recently revealed fact that she only suspended KCSO Captain Todd Miller for one day over a racist comment he posted to his Facebook page last April. Miller led the botched sting operation that was responsible for Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens’ death in early 2017, and was the first of three officers to shoot that day. He was then a sergeant and has since been promoted to captain. He has faced no discipline for his role in Dunlap-Gittens’ shooting.

In contrast, the sheriff fired KCSO Det. 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.” Johanknecht appeared to state in her rationale behind Brown’s firing that her decision boiled down to the fact that the detective had made multiple offensive posts, and that these posts were public and widely circulated and commented on, rather than the fact that Brown made them at all. Johanknecht said in her final analysis that Brown’s posts created local and national “outrage” and had an “extremely harmful, negative and damaging effect to the Sheriff’s Office.”

Not This Time also sees it as a race issue, because Summer Taylor was white. 

“That officer [Det. Mike Brown], when a white [person] was killed, was fired for the post, even though Brown was not involved in Taylor’s death,” Gregory said. “But when officer Todd Miller, who was directly involved [in Mi’Chance’s shooting] — and he was the first of three officers to shoot — when he makes a comment about Black inner city youth, [calling them] ‘animals,’ when he is the one who contributed to a Black youth’s death, he gets a one-day suspension.”

Not This Time Acting Director DeVitta Briscoe said during the March 12 press conference that it was the racist beliefs such as those Miller felt comfortable espousing on his Facebook page “that cost Mi’Chance’s life.”

“We have no faith in fair and appropriate discipline that is applied under Mitzi’s supervision, and under her direction and leadership,” Briscoe said at the March 12 press conference. “We have no trust that fairness is being applied, that no discipline is being applied, and what that does is that further devalues Black life. It also further erodes our trust in law enforcement. What we are asking for is the resignation of Sheriff Mizti Johanknecht, based upon her failure to treat racism with the seriousness it requires in her position.”

Briscoe is the sister of Che Taylor, a 46-year-old Black man whom two Seattle police officers shot and killed in 2016, despite Taylor complying with their orders, when they approached him. Taylor’s family recently settled out of court with the City of Seattle for $1.5 million.

The group also asked that Miller be fired for his racist post and called for a change in policy to ensure that personnel are “thoroughly screened for racism and other biases,” and that, if racism or other biases were discovered, that that be grounds for disqualification from their jobs.

The day after the March 12 press conference, Not This Time sent a detailed email to the King County Council asking that the Council support their call for Johanknecht’s resignation, Miller’s firing, and better screening for racism in KCSO personnel. After Not This Time’s press conference, King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove posted on Facebook that he was proud of the group “for speaking up. I stand with them and support their demands. I think most people agree we need a culture change in police departments across the country — and the King County Sheriff’s Office is no exception.”

Not This Time also shared an email from Upthegrove to Briscoe, in which Upthegrove iterated support for Not This Time’s demands.

“DeVitta- I was so proud to see the courage on display at that news conference. Yes- I stand with you and support the demands. I have made my support public and hope it helps. It was important to me that the moms not feel left hanging alone once again. I look forward to working with you on improvements to employment screening in the KCSO,” Upthegrove’s March 15 email read, before closing with “Yours in solidarity, Dave Upthegrove.”

Just like Miller, Molina was promoted to the rank of detective this past summer, according to the Le family’s lawyer Phil Arnold, of Campiche Arnold, PLLC. Also like Miller, Molina has never faced any discipline for the murder of Le.

Gregory said that these facts are only made worse in the light of Johanknecht’s post-settlement email. Such an email makes it clear to both the police and the community at large that the police come first — no matter what. But it’s not only Not This Time that feels this way, she said.

“You wouldn’t believe the amount of emails and letters and letters to the [King County Council] and support for Tommy Le’s family — ‘she was so callous,’ ‘she was so cruel,’” Gregory said, recalling some of the community’s messages. “She was so thoughtless of the Tommy Le family and all of the families that we represent — of how the community, who has gone through such loss every time another person was killed, would feel when they read this letter. She is supposed to be a sheriff for the community and her staff. And that does not show this in this letter.”

Since the sheriff’s internal email came to light, Councilmembers besides Upthegrove have also come forward to publicly weigh in on Johanknecht’s leadership and how both King County and the KCSO handled the shooting of Tommy Le. In a statement released on Friday, March 26, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott stated that he also believes Johanknecht should resign. McDermott represents District 8, which includes Burien, the town in which Le and his family lived at the time of the shooting, and the town in which Molina killed Le.

“Dismissing as ‘emotion’ the well documented disproportionate negative impacts policing and systemic racism has had on communities of color across our country, including here in King County, adds insult to injury,” McDermott’s statement reads. “I have no confidence the Sheriff can effectively lead KCSO through the next nine months. I believe she must step down to limit the ongoing damage her decisions have inflicted against the trust of our BIPOC neighbors and our entire community.”

In an interview with the Emerald on March 29, McDermott mentioned Not This Time’s email to the Council after the March 12 press conference. He said that he had been reflecting on Not This Time’s request that the Council support their demands, when the news broke about the email the sheriff sent after the Le family settlement was announced and Not This Time sent a full copy of the sheriff’s email to the entire King County Council.

“That is what … moved thought-reflection to being ready to call for action,” McDermott said. “Even if the facts of the case were different, or perceptions of the incident itself that led to Tommy’s death were different, the sheriff’s email last week was terribly unfair and insensitive to so many. And that alone erodes trust in her leadership.”

McDermott said that because the sheriff is an elected official, the actions the Council can take are limited. To his knowledge, there are no other avenues available to them other than to call for her resignation. He said he’d had some contact with a couple of his colleagues about the issue but could not speak for them. Gregory shared with the Emerald that Councilmembers Claudia Balducci and Jeanne Kohl-Welles had also expressed support for Not This Time’s work and agreed that more police accountability was needed but were concerned that if Johanknecht were to resign, the County would have to to hold a special election to find an interim replacement sheriff at the same time the Council was trying to appoint a new sheriff.

Johanknecht’s term finishes at the end of this year, and the Council will need to have made an official appointment before then to replace her in January 2022.

McDermott also acknowledged King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski’s tweet that the entire County “owes the Le family a formal and sincere apology for the wrongful killing of Tommy,” and that he was “[s]ad to see it wasn’t given as part of the settlement.” While McDermott didn’t remark directly on the tweet, he did say that he had been at the meeting in which the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight presented the independent investigation into Le’s death.

After a pause, McDermott said, “Tommy was unarmed, shot in the back twice [and] in the wrist. … Tommy was killed. That is not the right way we should respond to anyone in any kind of crisis.”

In an email to the Emerald on March 29, Dembowski in no uncertain terms called Johanknecht’s email “a reprehensible message, devoid of any compassion, and troubling in that there seemed to be no expressed intention to do better” and deemed Johanknect herself “a failed leader.”

“I did not support her election in 2017 but I certainly hoped for the sake of our county that she would succeed,” Dembowski’s email read. 

“Sadly, her leadership of the department has been disappointing, and was one of the reasons I led the very difficult and uphill effort to convert to an appointed sheriff, with County Executive and Council oversight,” Dembowski continued, citing efforts over this past summer that came to fruition this past autumn in the form of a successful ballot measure that converted the position of King County sheriff from an elected to an appointed position.

Dembowski also said that he had received a number of emails asking that he support calls for Johanknecht’s resignation. He said that he has “reached out to our legal counsel to understand the consequences of a resignation.”

“I have asked for information about who would succeed the sheriff, for how long, and whether or not a resignation could trigger a special election. That may depend on whether or not a resignation occurred before or after the end of filing week. I would not be supportive of a course of action that resulted in a special election with a new sheriff taking office late this year for just  one month,” Dembowski’s email read, echoing Balducci’s and Kohl-Welles sentiments in their messages to Not This Time.

He went on to say that he didn’t “want to have a situation that is more chaotic than we have today,” and that he believes most of the Council’s focus “should be on finding the very best possible replacement for Sheriff Johanknecht and getting that person, appointed, confirmed, and then smoothly transitioned into the leadership role ASAP.  This is a very big undertaking and we have to get it right.”

Other community organizations have also joined in on the call for Johanknecht’s resignation, but have committed to respecting the wishes of the Le family and following their lead on this particular matter, as well as the lead of Not This Time, given the group’s work and sustained calls for action. 

In an interview with the Emerald on March 31, Aneelah Afzali of the Muslim Association of the Puget Sound — American Muslim Empowerment Network (MAPS-AMEN) said that MAPS-AMEN, Burien-based Community Visions, the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), and several other community organizations had held a preliminary meeting that same day to discuss how they could best support the Le family and the work of Not This Time.

“We talked about what specific demands the community would want to ask of the King County Sheriff’s Office, as well as King County, the City of Burien … the King County executive, and also, specifically, what we hope to put into some kind of community call to action and letter to raise awareness about what happened here and demand accountability,” Afzali said. 

Afzali said that the group has decided on a few follow-up steps, including a review of an open letter calling for Johanknecht’s resignation and any other potential actions the community may want to include. She also said ACRS will specifically be following up with the Le family and that “we, as individuals and community members, are ready and willing to amplify what they want to amplify.”

Speaking both personally and as the executive director of ACRS, Michael Byun said in this same interview with the Emerald he wanted to acknowledge “the highly inappropriate comments and the words that were coming out of the sheriff’s office.”

“It is important, as part of the community response, that we continue to be in consultation with the families, to make sure that they are supported [and] taking the time for them, if they have any questions or would like to have more understanding about it,” Byun said, referring to the fact that ACRS and other community groups will be holding off on speaking about specific actions in deference to the Le family and their potential wishes.

Speaking on behalf of police accountability organization People Power of Washington, Co-Chair Nancy Kick echoed in a March 31 email that the group will be following Not This Time’s lead. Kick said they had sent a letter to members urging them to contact their Councilmembers to express support for Not This Time’s early demands that Johanknecht resign. 

Gregory shared in her April 1 interview with the Emerald that Next Steps Washington, an organization devoted to following up on the implementation of police accountability and training overhaul Initiative 940, also supports Not This Time. 

While he has not had an opportunity to speak with King County Executive Dow Constantine on the email or on Le’s killing, since he has been “really focused on working with the [Le] family,” Byun said that he is “disappointed” in Constantine’s lack of a public position on Le’s death.

“We are disappointed. We wish there was a more public and more vocal position and perspective from the county executive to support community on this very important matter. It’s a really important voice that I think our region should see here,” Byun said.

But Gregory has a different take. She said that Constantine has worked with Not This Time for several years, and that what some people may see as “avoidant,” this may not be the case. Gregory believes Constantine “wants to do this correctly” by possibly communicating with Johanknecht through more formal, government channels, before making any public statement. She said that Not This Time has heard that Constantine has reached out to Johanknecht for an explanation about Miller’s one-day suspension. However, she can’t be sure — she said she has not spoken with Constantine — and that Not This Time will contact him if they don’t hear anything from his office within a certain timeframe.

The Emerald reached out to Constantine’s office for comment about these recent calls for the sheriff’s resignation. Constantine’s Director of Communications Alex Fryer responded with a one-paragraph press release from March 24 briefly remarking on the Le family’s settlement, but mostly focusing on the fact that Constantine worked to reform the inquest process. Despite the Emerald’s request for a specific statement about the current calls for Johanknecht’s resignation, neither Fryer nor Constantine remarked on these calls, nor did they mention the fact that Not This Time had emailed Constantine’s office directly to request support in their call for Johanknecht’s resignation. 

It should also be noted that Constantine and his office have mostly refrained from weighing in on the Le case, despite repeated requests from the Emerald in its many stories about the shooting.

The Emerald also reached out to Gov. Jay Inslee to ask if the governor had any input on the matter, as he has publicly remarked in the recent past on county sheriffs’ words and actions. However, to the Emerald’s best knowledge, Inslee has never publicly remarked on Le’s killing, despite doing so in several other high-profile cases involving police using deadly force.

Inslee’s Deputy Communications Director Mike Faulk said in a brief email to the Emerald that though the office is “following coverage regarding the King County Sheriff’s Office … no one has reached out to us directly. On this specific question there’s not much we can add right now.”

“The loss of Tommy’s life was a tragedy. Too many People of Color, particularly young men, are being killed in encounters with law enforcement,” Faulk said. “The bills passed by the Legislature this year will go a long way in helping to address some of the issues, but concerning disconnects remain. We have to find a way to move forward to bridge the divide between law enforcement and the community.”

King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove did not respond to request for comment, and another Councilmember declined to go on the record with the Emerald at that time.

On April 7, after the original version of this story was published King County Councilmember and Chair of the Council’s Law and Justice Committee Girmay Zahilay took to Twitter to state his support for the calls for Johanknecht’s resignation.

“The families of Tommy Le, Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens, & others we’ve lost to police violence, have spoken. They’ve said, and I agree, that the Sheriff’s statements do not reflect the values we need in that office,” Zahilay’s tweet read. “Whether it’s oversight boards lacking power, insurmountable police union contracts, or internal investigations steeped in conflicts of interest, our systems already shield officers from accountability. Our Sheriff’s words & actions shouldn’t further tip the scales against justice.”

Zahilay went on to say in the Twitter thread that even though the nation has “understandably spotlighted police violence in other cities, some of the most egregious instances of police killing unarmed people have happened here in Seattle and King County.”

“The movements of 2020 gave us the opportunity to turn the page on this reality,” Zahilay continued, referring to the recently passed ballot measures that will make the sheriff an appointed rather than an elected position, as discussed earlier in this article. He also noted that these changes will not occur until 2022, but said that this is “why we can’t wait until our current Sheriff’s term is up to have leadership that shows compassion, upholds accountability, & ushers in positive change.”

“My heart goes out to Tommy Le’s family. Their son should have graduated from South Seattle College and be here with them today. They deserve better than to read a dismissive email from KCSO’s leadership about his death. I hope the Sheriff will resign & allow them to begin healing,” Zahilay said.

On April 8, Washington State Sen. Joe Nguyen — who represents the State’s 34th District, which includes Burien — added his voice to elected leaders’ calls for Johanknecht’s resignation in a brief tweet.

“Today I join my colleagues across King County and our community calling for Sheriff Johanknecht’s resignation. Tommy Le’s family deserves justice. A dehumanizing, disrespectful, dismissive statement from the Sheriff’s office regarding the death of their son is unacceptable,” Nguyen said. “We task our law enforcement officers with being the guardians of our communities, they need to be held accountable when they fail in that mission. The continued lack of accountability shows a broader failure of our institutions. We must demand more from our county’s leaders.”

Burien Deputy Mayor Krystal Marx also called for Johanknecht’s resignation later in the day on April 8. On Twitter, Marx wrote that “Tommy Le was a Burien resident. Burien is a contract city for the King County Sheriff’s Office, and our community deserves respect… and Tommy should still be with his family today. Enough.”

The Emerald reached out to Johanknecht for comment on this story, but she did not respond.

Gregory said that Not This Time hopes for more support from elected officials and community members alike in the coming days and weeks. She said the fact that the sheriff felt comfortable enough to write such a letter was not only wrong but also promoted the feeling of a “thin blue line” narrative within the department itself and makes it seem as though Johanknecht refuses to accept any wrongdoing on her own part.

 “To say that ‘proceeding to trial runs the risk of a verdict that is based on emotion, rather than facts’ shows she herself has not either read the facts or taken the facts into account when she sent this letter out,” Gregory said, quoting from Johanknect’s email. “‘I will remain steadfast in support of you,’ meaning her officers — that totally disregards the community … and, specifically, the Le family.”

Author’s Note: The Emerald has been taking a deeper dive into the shooting death of Tommy Le. Interested readers can find the first article, which discusses the possibility Le may have been shot facedown and may not have even had a pen, here. A second article discussing red flags — uncovered in an Office of Law Enforcement Oversight-led independent investigation of the manner in which the King County Sheriff’s Office conducted the internal investigation into the shooting — can be found here. A third article discussing the King County Prosecutor’s Office’s potential conflict of interest in the case can be found here. A fourth article regarding taxpayers being partially on the hook for substantial court-ordered sanctions against defendants King County and Molina, for a frivolous appeal that delayed the original trial, can be found here. A fifth article about how King County’s and Molina’s lawyers tried to argue for an in-person trial, despite the County’s own COVID-19 protocols, can be found here. A sixth article about the Le family’s settlement and King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht’s internal email about the settlement and the shooting can be found here.

Carolyn Bick is a local journalist and photographer. 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 by Susan Fried.

Before you move on to the next story …

The South Seattle Emerald is brought to you by Rainmakers. Rainmakers give recurring gifts at any amount. With around 1,000 Rainmakers, the Emerald is truly community-driven local media. Help us keep BIPOC-led media free and accessible.

If just half of our readers signed up to give $6 a month, we wouldn’t have to fundraise for the rest of the year. Small amounts make a difference.

We cannot do this work without you. Become a Rainmaker today!

Leave a ReplyCancel reply