‘The Knives Come Out’: The Uphill Battle for Oversight in King County

by Carolyn Bick 


This is the first in a series of articles examining the pushback and internal pressure former Office of Law Enforcement (OLEO) director Deborah Jacobs appears to have faced during her tenure at OLEO. This pushback appears to have mainly stemmed from within the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO), the very law enforcement entity OLEO is tasked with overseeing, as well as the King County Police Officer’s Guild (KCPOG), some of whose members belong to the KCSO. Multiple sources have alleged that certain members of the KCSO and the KCPOG mounted an internal campaign against Jacobs and said that the main goal of the campaign was Jacobs’ ouster. The King County Council decided not to renew Jacobs’ contract, after an independent investigation found that Jacobs had violated King County discrimination codes. Jacobs has since filed a tort claim against King County.

Sitting at the table with other King County officials, Deborah Jacobs watched then-Sheriff John Urquhart gesture towards his side as he answered questions in a private 2017 meeting at the Asian Counseling and Referral Services’ headquarters, just before a public one for the community at the same location, regarding Tommy Le’s death, only weeks after it happened. Urquhart was talking about where King County Sheriff’s Office then-Deputy Cesar Molina had shot Le.

It’s unclear whether Urquhart knew at that point that Molina had shot Le in the back. But Jacobs knew. And it was then, said Jacobs — the director of the King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) at the time — she realized that she might very well lose her job: She said that she did not want to hide the fact that Molina had shot Le anywhere other than in the back but that she was bound by internal politics and policies that forbade her from speaking about the shooting in public. 

Deborah Jacobs would eventually lose her job when, in 2020, the King County Council voted not to renew her contract. But while she served as OLEO director, she appears to have faced a years-long internal campaign against her by the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) and the King County Police Officer’s Guild (KCPOG), whose ultimate goal was her ouster. Furthermore, Jacobs would also spend much of her tenure at OLEO caught in a contentious collective bargaining agreement negotiation with KCPOG and the KCSO that would prove to hinder her ability to do her job as she saw fit

The Emerald has reviewed official documents, emails, text messages, and memos relating to the situation and has also interviewed several people who have varying degrees of familiarity with the internal environment at OLEO, the KCSO, and the KCPOG.

A few sources who are intimately familiar with certain aspects of these internal workings chose to remain anonymous, for fear of retaliation. They said that this culture of law enforcement pushback against civilian oversight and closing ranks had always been present but has grown much more pronounced under Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht. These same sources also said that the KCPOG had been particularly hostile towards Jacobs over a similar period of time.

The pressure and roadblocks Jacobs faced during her tenure aren’t unique to Jacobs and the KCSO, according to civilian law enforcement oversight experts who spoke with the Emerald. Even former Sheriff Urquhart, who sat down with the Emerald for an interview on May 10, 2021, agreed that Jacobs faced an internal campaign to oust her and said that “there’s something about a reformer … they just don’t last long here [in King County].

“Because the knives come out,” Urquhart told the Emerald. “People, especially in government … don’t like to be reformed. They don’t want to change their ways. … [T]hat is exactly what happened to Deborah.”

In this series of articles, the Emerald offers a look at OLEO, King County’s system of KCSO oversight — a system wherein the powers afforded it are not only bound by state law but also heavily influenced by the contract of the very law enforcement it is supposed to help keep accountable. It is a system, too, that faces constant pushback from law enforcement — some of whom allegedly work actively against it.

The Power Behind the Crown

It wasn’t supposed to be like this, one of the sources whom the Emerald spoke with said. This source — whom the Emerald will call Dan for the purposes of this story — chose to remain anonymous. “It’ll cause trouble for me,” if people find out who he is, Dan told the Emerald in an April 2, 2021, telephone interview.

Dan said that, originally, certain officials within the KCSO supported now-Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht’s run for sheriff against then-Sheriff Urquhart in late 2017. They “as a group knew that Urquhart was wrong for sheriff — [and], as a team, needed to do something different.” 

At the time, two different deputies had accused Urquhart of harrassment and sexual assault, which caused him to lose support among several public leaders. Urquhart filed a defamation lawsuit against one of the deputies who accused Urquhart of groping him in 2014. The prosecutor handling the case ultimately declined to file charges against Urquhart, stating that the charges did not rise to the level of “indecent liberties” and that, instead, they would have fallen under “gross misdemeanor.” However, the two-year statute of limitations on a gross misdemeanor had by then passed.  

At the same time, a judge filed a temporary protection order on behalf of the other deputy who claimed Urquhart had raped her in 2002. According to the Seattle Times, the judge filed the order after the deputy claimed that Urquhart’s campaign had offered to send the deputy’s medical file to an LGBTQ+ advocacy organization that decided to endorse Johanknecht, in order to prove the deputy making the rape claim against Urquhart was not credible. Earlier that year in April, the King County Prosecutor’s Office had declined to file charges against Urquhart for the alleged rape, saying that not only had the statute of limitations passed on the matter — the statute of limitations for rape is 10 years — but that there was not enough evidence to press charges. Urquhart maintained in his interview with the Emerald on May 10 several years later that these accusations were part of a plan cooked up to get him out.

The group within the KCSO who wanted Urquhart out picked Johanknecht to run against Urquhart. But theirs wasn’t the kind of backing that would appear on any public disclosure page. It was internal, according to Urquhart and Dan. Dan said the plan was that Johanknecht “was going to be a figurehead.”

“She wasn’t going to get in the way, she was going to let the professionals run the department,” Dan said. “And that just went out the window. Scott got to her,” he said, referring to former Undersheriff Scott Somers, “and convinced her that he needed to be in charge.”

Dan said he found out about this sea change just a few nights after the election, which Johanknecht won by just over 56% of the vote. After that, things quickly went downhill.

Both Dan and another person familiar with the matter — whom the Emerald will call Mark, out of respect for his wish for privacy due to fear of retaliation — said that Johanknecht, Somers, and other KCSO officers who fell in line with the new administration’s wishes would only keep counsel with each other. They didn’t like to be questioned, and when someone pushed back on their line of thinking, that person would be subject to one of Somers’ tirades — complete with table-banging — in meetings with other officers and King County officials. In addition to being embarrassing for the person at whom Somers’ rage was directed, it also ensured that almost nothing happened that KCSO’s senior leadership — apparently supported by KCPOG, to some extent — did not condone.

Urquhart told the Emerald that he was aware of these behind-the-scenes workings at the KCSO to get him out and said it was specifically a group of approximately seven KCSO captains who ensured his own downfall. Urquhart said that the issue dated back to 2012, when he ran against then-Sheriff Steve Strachan. Urquhart said that King County was “this close” to a consent decree, “right on the heels of the Seattle Consent Decree.

“At the same time, in July of 2012, a report came out of a police review company … that the [King County] Council had hired. And the gist of the report was that the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t follow its own guidelines, its own policies, and the biggest problem is the command staff not following the policies,” Urquhart said. “The report didn’t really fault the deputies, particularly, but it certainly faulted the command staff. So, I came in as a reformer to literally reform the command staff, as much as anything.

“But you can’t reform the command staff without dealing with discipline,” Urquhart continued. “I fired 23 people when I was the sheriff. I fired more people in my five years than the last three sheriffs [before me] combined. But I also held the command staff to the same standard. And that means that if they did the same conduct, they were going to be investigated the same way. And that had also not been happening before.” 

Urquhart said that this didn’t sit well with these seven or so KCSO captains — Somers, who had been demoted by former Sheriff Sue Rahr, among them — and because they couldn’t get a vote of no confidence against Urquhart within the Puget Sound Police Managers Association or within the KCPOG, this group set about trying to get him out. He said he knows all of this because one of these people told him about it a few months after Johanknecht took office.

“They picked Mitzi and talked her into running against me. … Mitzi had promised [the person who told me] that he would be the undersheriff and that Scott [Somers] would be a chief or something — and made some other promises. The election was in the first week of November. [The person who told me] was on vacation. When he comes back, Scott has wormed his way in and he is the undersheriff,” Urquhart said.

Urquhart said that over the course of the two-and-a-half years Somers was undersheriff, several people, including the person who told him about this, left the department because “they couldn’t stand Mitzi and the way she was doing the job” and because both Somers and Johanknecht had “terrible” tempers.

Months after Johanknecht had taken office, Urquhart ran into the person who ended up telling him all of this. At the time, he and that person were not on good terms. But this person ended up surprising Urquhart by apologizing to him.

“He says, ‘The worst thing I have ever done in my career was supporting Mitzi. I never should have done that. I never should have done that. I should have supported you. We are in such worse shape now than we ever were,’” Urquhart recalled. “Literally, he says, ‘I’ve lost sleep over doing that to you.’ At the end of the day, he cared about the Sheriff’s Office. And he [believed] that Mitzi had destroyed it.”

Somers retired from the KCSO in June 2020.

KCSO Leadership: Bullying and Hostility, Resistance to Oversight

Almost from the very start of OLEO Director Jacobs’ tenure, Undersheriff Scott Somers reportedly treated Jacobs badly. Jacobs herself attests to this, as do former Sheriff John Urquhart, Dan, Mark, and former King County Labor Relations senior negotiator David Topaz.

“He is a bully by nature,” Mark said of Somers, “and for some reason, he felt quite comfortable trying to bully her [Jacobs]. … I don’t know that I can characterize his thoughts on OLEO, as an entity, but he definitely felt very comfortable personalizing OLEO with Deb. Really, I think it was more sport for him than content, because I don’t know that he had the capacity to listen to her questions or criticism about what [KCSO] was doing or how [it] did things.”

Mark remembered one particular time Somers “went on a tirade” about how he had supposedly “lectured” Jacobs about “appropriate conversation,” during a benefit event. Mark said he didn’t remember the specific topic but that Somers “just went on and on about how he wasn’t going to take anything from her or any of her stuff and that he had no problems lecturing her during this [event] where I never saw him talking to her.

“It seemed like he was trying to get us all to believe that he had reprimanded her for questions or positions on things. None of it made any sense,” Mark said.

Mark said that Somers’ apparent dislike of Jacobs carried over into the workplace, where Somers would “treat OLEO [oversight duties] like it was a personal thing.” To Somers, Mark said, “Deb was OLEO, not the office.”

Mark also remembered one specific meeting where Somers laid into Jacobs — hard. It was as if Somers “went in there [the meeting] to prove a point to his audience,” Mark said.

Another source — whom the Emerald will call Grant, in order to respect his wishes not to be named due to concerns over retaliation — who is intimately familiar with certain aspects of the situation told the Emerald that he was present at a Critical Incident Review Board (CIRB) meeting in 2020 about a 2018 officer-involved incident in Shoreline. It was a meeting during which Somers and a couple other KCSO personnel “were definitely rude and demeaning and dismissive to Jacobs,” said Grant.

“The undersheriff most notably. Scott Somers started the meeting, I thought, by publicly berating her and then was very dismissive,” Grant recalled. “And I saw that behavior from at least one or two other people. I would not say it was universal. There were a couple folks at KCSO who treated her respectfully and gave her information. It seems to me they agreed that some oversight was a good thing and that it was possible to work in partnership, and there were overlapping goals.”

Jacobs also shared notes from that 2020 meeting — about the 2018 incident — with the Emerald. In these notes, Jacobs wrote that she “asked some questions about the search warrant assessment relating to two questions that may have been erroneously responded to. 

“One was whether they expected any ‘innocent people/children’ to be present (answer was no) and the other was whether they had reason to expect the person to be armed/dangerous (answer was no).

“There is a lot of information available prior to the incident that contradicts those answers from KCSO. They were aware that there could be a person living in the house for whom they did not have probable cause to arrest,” Jacobs’ notes continued.

“Somers attempted to cut off my questions, asked ‘why we’re going down this hole,’ and was  generally hostile to my inquiry. I persisted and asked my questions anyway. It was mentioned  that the assessment forms were primarily to assess risk to KCSO personnel, and whether TAC30 [King County’s SWAT team] should be engaged,” Jacobs wrote. “Since the meeting, three KCSO personnel contacted me to apologize for the manner in which Somers interacted with me.”

By the time this meeting happened, Somers’ alleged bullying had already been revealed in a 2019 story from MyNorthwest based on the publication’s public disclosure request filed after two KCSO division chiefs quit their positions. The documents obtained cited dysfunction, bullying, and marginalization, both by Somers and Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht.

So when Jacobs announced at a meeting in late June 2018 that she planned to commission an independent investigation — which ended up being the damning OIR Group report that the Emerald reported on in-depth — into the shooting death of Tommy Le, Somers was apparently not happy and let Jacobs know it.

Enemy Number One

When Jacobs “started releasing information publicly — the reports [into Tommy Le’s and Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens’ deaths] and all that sort of stuff — she was enemy number one,” former King County labor negotiator David Topaz told the Emerald in a March 22, 2021, interview.

For context, prior to enlisting OIR Group for an independent investigation into the shooting death of Le, Jacobs commissioned OIR Group to complete an independent investigation into the 2017 shooting death of Dunlap-Gittens. King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) deputies shot and killed Dunlap-Gittens, a 17-year-old Black teenager, in a sting gone wrong in January 2017, the same year then-Deputy Cesar Molina shot and killed Le.

In a June 29, 2018, email to Jacobs and KCSO Legal Advisor Erin Overbey, Somers said that he wanted to address the fact that he “heard you [Jacobs] say that your Office would be putting out a report on the Tommy Le use of force.

“I would ask that you confer with our Senior Legal Advisor, Erin Overbey, prior to doing so if you are planning on producing any reports. As you know, we are in the process of negotiating labor agreements-in (sic) mediation and I am sure you want to work with all your county partners to support successful outcomes,” Somers’ email read. “Additionally, I believe that KCPOG President [Steve] Eggert is receptive to making a number of changes to processes that would improve uses of force review, etc., that might be adversely impacted, without thoughtful coordination and compliance to existing policy and collective bargaining agreements.

“Finally, I want to insure (sic) we provide you thoughtful feedback on how to make improvements together without creating unintended negative consequences,” Somers’ email read, before closing with a cordial note: “Thanks and have a great weekend and 4th …”

But what Jacobs read between the lines was anything but cordial. She told the Emerald that Somers’ email — particularly the part about “unintended negative consequences” — felt like a cloaked message to Jacobs to back off the Le case rather than an invitation for thoughtful discussion.

More than a month before Somers’ email to Jacobs and Overbey regarding the OIR Group’s investigation into the Le case, in a May 20, 2018, email to Johanknecht, Jacobs expressed excitement about potentially reaching out to King County city councils with regards to civilian oversight of law enforcement and invited the KCSO to participate.

“We think there is tremendous value-added (sic) to the cities by having OLEO in place, and want to let them know about the work we do,” Jacobs’ email read. “I wanted to find out whether and how KCSO might want to be incorporated into those presentations. We have had a preliminary conversation about it with the City Manager in Burien (I let [Burien Police Department Chief] Ted Boe know), but nothing has been approved or scheduled.”

Tommy Le had been shot and killed in Burien, where he and his family lived.

In her email to Johaknecht, Jacobs had included previous emails with Burien City Manager Brian Wilson, who wrote to Jacobs on May 10, 2018, to both thank her for writing and “to confirm that Sheriff Johanknecht and Chief Boe are supportive and would be incorporated into a 5–7 minute presentation on OLEO. 

“Their support of OLEO and collaborative messaging regarding its value would be recommended,” Wilson’s message continued.

On May 24, 2018, Jacobs wrote again to Wilson, proposing an outline for such a presentation. The following is the proposed presentation order, copied directly from Jacobs’ email:

  • What is police oversight (describe general purpose & national context)
  • What is OLEO (describe OLEO’s role as an independent agency within King County)
  • What we do to provide oversight of the Sheriff’s Office (explain OLEO’s duties)
  • What OLEO means for Burien (the benefits of having oversight)
  • Tommy Le — status of case, OLEO’s role, and review of KCSO Communications

But on May 25, 2018, Johanknecht wrote a lengthy email to Wilson and Jacobs pushing back against such a presentation, citing not only the ongoing negotiations over the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) — the document that governs labor policy within the KCSO, KCPOG, and OLEO — but also specifically against discussing the Le case in any public manner.

“To be clear, I believe in independent oversight of law enforcement and the King County Sheriff’s Office. But, I am trying to understand the timing of OLEO’s attendance at one of our contract partners (sic) public meetings. Specifically, I have serious concerns that a first OLEO visit to a contract would occur while King County and I are in contentious mediation over the KCPOG bargaining agreement,” Johanknecht’s email read. “The contract process will very likely lead to binding arbitration and the oversight of OLEO is a huge portion of the bargaining right now.

“As a matter of fact,” Johanknecht continued, “an ULP has just been filed by the KCPOG related to independent investigations by OLEO.”

Johanknecht was referring to an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP), which, according to a recent Master Labor Agreement between King County, the KCSO, and the Public Safety Employees Union, is an official grievance. Jacobs said she did not know what Johanknecht was referring to in that email, as to her knowledge, no official grievance had been filed at that time.

The KCSO did not respond to request for comment regarding the ULP Johanknecht was referring to in her May 25, 2018, email.

Semantics

The King County Police Officer’s Guild (KCPOG) filed an official grievance on Feb. 4, 2020, against Jacobs or OLEO — based on how the letter is written, it is unclear against whom the grievance was filed — for, among other issues, allegedly disclosing the names of officers involved in the shooting death of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens.

The KCPOG claimed that commissioning the Dunlap-Gittens report went against Section 15 of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that was, at that time, still under negotiation. In Section 15 of the CBA that was in place while this negotiation was happening, it states that “The OLEO is prohibited at all times and, including but not limited to, issuing written or oral reports, from disclosing the name(s) or other identifying information of employees or other individuals involved in incidents or investigations. … Absent a court order, the OLEO is prohibited from providing information related to pending investigations to any third party because such disclosure could compromise a pending investigation.”

But the problem with the grievance is that the names of the officers involved in the shooting death of Dunlap-Gittens were known to the public prior to OLEO allegedly “disclosing” them.

“The word I focus on is ‘disclosing,’” Jacobs explained to the Emerald in a March 16, 2021, interview. “To my understanding, ‘disclosing’ means ‘making known for the first time.’”

According to the Oxford Learner’s Dictionary, “disclosure” means “the act of making something known or public that was previously secret or private.” The word “disclose” means “to give somebody information about something, especially something that was previously secret.” 

In other words, it means to make something known for the first time. By the time Jacobs had approached Johanknecht about connecting with city councils regarding civilian oversight of law enforcement and made known her plans to commission the independent investigation into the shooting death of Tommy Le, the names of the shooter deputies in both the Dunlap-Gittens case and the Le case had already become public knowledge.

“As you go down the paragrap​h​ it says, ‘absent a court order, the OLEO is prohibited from providing information related to pending investigations,’” Jacobs continued in her March 16, 2021, interview, reading directly from the CBA that was in place and governing OLEO conduct until 2020. “So, juxtaposing ‘disclosing’ with ‘providing information,’ because, again, ‘disclosing,’ I think, means releasing for the first time, while ‘provided’ information may or may not have been​​ previously released.”

Jacobs said that she “dug in, saying, ‘Of course we should be able to include the names, because they have already been disclosed. We are not disclosing them.’”

Jacobs said that labor negotiator Bob Railton from the Office of Labor Relations, told her that ​that was not the intent of the agreement.​ 

“He said that King County agreed that we would not release the names​. He warned that if ​OLEO release​d​ them, ​we may get a grievance and the consequences that go with​ it​​,” she said. “He said that doing so would only ​confirm their narrative that I don’t follow the rules ​and ​sabotag​e​ our current round of bargaining​.​”

In the Guild’s official Feb. 4, 2020, grievance letter to Johanknecht and Railton, then-KCPOG President Steve Eggert said that the Guild did not believe that OIR Group’s investigation and review of the Dunlap-Gittens case were systemic. They also claimed that Jacobs had overstepped her authority and violated the terms in Section 15 of the CBA by commissioning the third-party investigation in the first place.

Eggert wrote that “[t]he report claims to be ‘systemic.’ It is not. It is a review by an outside consultant who, based upon the language of our expired Collective Bargaining Agreement, should never have been provided the information on which to proffer the report in the first place. A systemic review of policies, practices, and review mechanisms for officer involved (sic) shootings would have to look beyond an individual case to identify ‘systemic problems’ in the Sheriff’s Office.

“The Guild believes this non-systemic review of an individual case is not only a violation of the status quo of our expired agreement, it would also violate the terms of our tentative agreement on the successor contract. This is a clear overstep of OLEO’s authority as prescribed by contract and ordinance,” the grievance letter read.

“The Guild believes the proper remedy of this grievance is to prohibit the release of this report,” the letter continued. “Please advise if you do not intend to stop the release of the report as we will need to seek other legal remedies to prevent its release and prevent the irreparable harm the release will cause our membership.”

The OIR Group’s report into Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens’s death was released in February 2020. In September 2020, the OIR Group’s report into Tommy Le’s death was released.

The Guild dropped its grievance against Jacobs in September 2020, shortly after the King County Council declined to renew her contract.

In an interview with the Emerald on May 14, 2021, current KCPOG President Mike “Manny” Mansanarez clarified that the grievance had been filed against Jacobs. While he said he couldn’t speak much about the grievance, because he was not president at the time the Guild filed it — he was on the Guild board — he said that the Guild would have dropped the grievance against Jacobs even if she were still OLEO director.

“The new contract allows for independent investigations. The old one does not,” Mansanarez said. “So, once we signed that paper, it was kind of a moot point, because she was gone, and the new contract allows it.”

Once again, the contract that had been in place during Jacobs’ tenure did not contain language prohibiting OLEO from providing information to OIR Group or from commissioning independent investigations. The new contract, which was signed in April 2020, contains a section that prohibits OLEO from utilizing “an expert who creates a report criticizing an expert’s opinion that was relied upon by the KCSO in reaching its conclusion for [the KCSO’s] investigation.”

In other words, the new contract appears to prevent investigators from consulting or commissioning reports from any expert whose findings KCSO determines are critical of findings by an expert KCSO consulted in its original administrative investigation of a matter, such as a police shooting. The contract seems to block OLEO from including rebuttal experts in their investigative reports or testimony.

This would appear to bar OLEO from commissioning any investigations like the ones it commissioned from OIR Group into Tommy Le’s and Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens’ deaths, because the OIR Group’s investigations were critical of KCSO’s processes that included expert opinions.

OLEO’s interim director, Adrienne Wat, told the Emerald in an email on May 17, 2021, after this article had originally been published that OLEO sees OIR Group’s reports on Le’s and Dunlap-Gittens’ deaths as “systemic reviews, not independent investigations.

“The reason is because for those reports, OIR reviewed KCSO’s investigations and relied on the facts contained in those investigations to make recommendations for improvements to KCSO as a department,” Wat said in her email.

“The CBA provision mentioned in your article applies in situations where OLEO issues a request to KCSO to conduct additional investigation, but they declined to do it,” Wat continued. “If OLEO decided to conduct that additional independent investigation ourselves, we would be attempting do additional independent investigatory work to learn or discover more facts rather than review existing facts and assess how well KCSO systems related policy, practice, or review mechanisms functioned.  As a result, we don’t view the CBA provision as prohibiting us from conducting or commissioning future systemic reports like the Dunlap-Gittens or Le reports.”

The Emerald will examine in-depth both the Council’s decision not to renew Jacobs’ contract with OLEO and the Guild’s decision to drop the grievance in an upcoming article in this series.

In her May 25, 2018, email to Jacobs and Burien City Manager Brian Wilson, Johanknecht said, “I cannot in good conscience attend nor do I believe OLEO should attend a public meeting where OLEO oversight has not been completely bargained,” before going on to question how OLEO could “know what is yet bargained when trying to explain their role in oversight or what it would mean for Burien or any contract, let alone the entirety of KCSO.”

With regards to talking publicly about the shooting death of Tommy Le, Johanknecht said that she “firmly” disagreed “with any discussion as to the status of an incident (Tommy Le) while King County is being sued and investigations not concluded.

“More importantly,” Johanknecht continued in her email, “OLEO does not have the entire picture of events, no inquest has been held, nor force review having taken place (sic). OLEO does not know the status of the case, or their bargained role in this case, nor should they be presenting anything about it, to include the review of KCSO communications,” Johanknecht explained. “All of this can negatively impact King County’s defense of a lawsuit and is just not acceptable to me, including a review of communications that occurred during a prior administration and has not been accepted by me as accurate or necessary in my Office and as an elected official.”

Later that same year, the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information released an OLEO-commissioned report into the way the KCSO’s media communications team handled the public release of information in the shooting death of Tommy Le. The report was just as damning of the KCSO media team as the later OIR Group report was of the KCSO as a whole. At the urging of King County Office of Labor Relations (KCOLR) labor negotiator and current deputy director Bob Railton, as well as King County lawyers, Jacobs decided to redact the original report — a move she told the Emerald she still regrets to this day. The unredacted report can be found here on the OLEO’s webpage.

Johanknecht pushed back against the report, largely basing her reasoning on the fact that she was not the sheriff at the time of the shooting or the initial release of information from the KCSO. In her response, she said that the KCSO is now focused on the “proactive” release of information. However, she did not address the fact that no press release about the shooting of Tommy Le has ever discussed the fact that Molina shot him in the back.

Johanknecht also gave “one note of caution: the Brechner Center recommendations are written from the point of view of journalists.” She did not bother to mention that many of these journalists happened to come first from a legal background, instead continuing: “A number of their recommendations for releasing the names of suspects, their criminal histories, and their photos may be contrary to law enforcement’s goal of protecting an active investigation and, in many cases, a suspect’s right to the presumption of innocence before trial.”

Years later, in early 2021, in an internal email leaked to the Emerald, Johanknecht would reject the significance of a $5 million settlement between the Le family and King County. She would continue to portray Le as a threat to the surrounding community and Molina as a beleaguered officer who was simply doing his job. 

In her email, Johanknecht does not mention that Molina shot Le in the back, which appears to counter the KCSO’s and involved deputies’ narratives that Le was running towards them. She also does not mention that Le did not have a knife and suggests that any court finding would have been “a verdict based on emotion, rather than facts.”

The Emerald reached out to the KCSO for this article but did not receive a response by deadline.

This concludes part one of this series of articles. Part two can be found here.


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

Featured image from the Emerald archives.

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