BREAKING: King County Executive Dow Constantine Has ‘Urged’ Sheriff Johanknecht to Retire ‘Immediately’

by Carolyn Bick


King County Executive Dow Constantine has added his voice to those calling for King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht to resign, following an internal email the sheriff sent to King County Sheriff’s Office employees in late March. Constantine joins community groups and several elected officials.

On March 24, just hours after the family of a young man whom a Sheriff’s Office deputy shot and killed in 2017 settled a four-year legal battle out of court with the County for $5 million, Johanknecht sent out an email that 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.

Since then, both community groups and elected leaders at both the County and State level have called for her resignation. The first community group to call for Johanknecht’s resignation in mid-March, before the sheriff’s March 24 email came out, Not This Time — a group that advocates for police accountability and reform, and works to provide communities and families with support and safety — shared with the Emerald an email that King County Chief Legal Counsel and Policy Advisor Gina Topp sent to them on April 12. Topp said that this was “the response Dow has been sending out regarding the King County Sheriff” and indicated a message that followed.

In the email, Constantine said that he joins the community “in frustration and disappointment by Sheriff Johanknecht’s written reaction to the settlement” and that he has “spoken with Sheriff Johanknecht about the challenges that she and the Sheriff’s Office face.” 

“In light of these challenges, and the shift of authority and responsibility from the Sheriff to the Executive office in less than nine months, I urged her to consider retiring immediately and allowing the people of King County and the law enforcement community to instead focus on the important transition ahead,” Constantine’s email read.

Constantine cannot force Johanknecht to resign, as she is elected, not appointed, but said that he will continue to focus his efforts on the charter amendment that voters approved last year to make the position of King County Sheriff appointed, not elected.

“We are in the process of hearing from the public and defining what the region wants in its next Sheriff, and this work will accelerate no matter how Sheriff Johanknecht decides to proceed,” Constantine continued in his email.

The Emerald has also printed Constantine’s response in full below and has made no edits to the text.

“Thank you for your letter regarding the Sheriff’s Office.

The voters of King County delivered a resounding statement last November in approving charter amendments clearing the way for substantive law enforcement reforms. These included the replacement of the elected Sheriff on January 1, 2022 with an appointed one, and authority for the County Council to define the “duties and structure” of the Sheriff’s office. County residents, a majority of the Council, and I want a transformation in the criminal legal system – divesting from old practices, investing in prevention, alternatives to detention, and re-entry, and reimagining all aspects of this system.

The County Council and I have already begun the process of charting this new direction for law enforcement in King County. We’re centering the voice of impacted communities and working with them and our law enforcement and professional staff to articulate the values we hold regarding how law enforcement should be conducted.

When the financial settlement with the Le Family was announced, I expressed my hope that it would bring a measure of peace to both the family and the community. I join you in frustration and disappointment by Sheriff Johanknecht’s written reaction to the settlement.

I have spoken with Sheriff Johanknecht about the challenges that she and the Sheriff’s Office face. In light of these challenges, and the shift of authority and responsibility from the Sheriff to the Executive office in less than nine months, I urged her to consider retiring immediately and allowing the people of King County and the law enforcement community to instead focus on the important transition ahead.

Under the terms of the charter amendment that will make the Sheriff an appointed position, we are in the process of hearing from the public and defining what the region wants in its next Sheriff, and this work will accelerate no matter how Sheriff Johanknecht decides to proceed.

We have witnessed a great division within our country and our community about the role of policing. My determination and commitment is to work towards a community-based and community co-created model of safety that provides both justice and healing.

Sincerely,

Dow Constantine
King County Executive”


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

Featured Image: King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht, courtesy of the King County Sheriff’s Office.

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