binders, investigation

A Director’s Downfall: The Uphill Battle for Oversight in King County

by Carolyn Bick

This is the fourth article 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. You can read part one of this series here, part two of this series here, and part three of this series here.

The Investigation

Deborah Jacobs officially lost her job as King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight director on the first day of September, 2020. That was the day the King County Council voted — narrowly, in a five-to-four vote — not to renew her contract. She spent one of the last days on the job presenting the independent investigative report her office commissioned into Tommy Le’s 2017 shooting death at the hands of a King County Sheriff’s officer.

And then, she was out.

Jacobs does not appear to have been entirely blameless in the loss of her job. As noted repeatedly throughout this series, the King County Council decided not to renew her contract because an independent investigation the Council commissioned found that she made discriminatory and inappropriate comments towards employees about other Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) employees or others outside OLEO.

The Emerald was unable to interview current OLEO employees or King County Councilmembers (KCC) about the issue due to a tort claim Jacobs filed against the County. The Emerald also requested comment from a past OLEO employee who declined to provide one. Thus, this article is based upon the final investigative report the KCC’s Employment and Administration Committee referred to in their Aug. 18, 2020, vote not to renew Jacobs’ contract. It’s worth pointing out that the Council’s Employment and Administration Committee is made up of all nine councilmembers. Notably, when it came time for the final full-Council vote in September, one councilmember — Joe McDermott — changed his vote in favor of keeping Jacobs on as OLEO director, despite having voted not to renew her contract in the Employment and Administration Committee vote. McDermott did not offer an explanation for the change of heart.

Publicly, Jacobs’ downfall was a rapid one.

In June 2020, several media outlets got ahold of an anonymous letter to the King County Clerk claiming Jacobs was “toxic” and had made several discriminatory and bigoted comments in the office.

While Jacobs told the Emerald that this letter was “dramatically inaccurate,” the investigation the letter triggered — carried out by Ogden Murphy Wallace, PLLC — substantiated five of the eight claims against her.

(As a note, the investigation redacted Jacobs’ name and the names of those who spoke out against her comments and behavior. It uses the name “Witness X,” where X is a number, to note which witnesses told the investigators which details. While the Emerald has included Jacobs’ name where appropriate, it has not included the names of any others employed with OLEO at the time in its details of the investigative report. However, Jacobs’ response letter to the KCC, which the Emerald has also included, does name specific OLEO staffers.)

In the first substantiated allegation, the investigation found that Jacobs “engaged in differential treatment by initially failing to consider Witness 1 for the Deputy Director position because she was not a white male.”

The investigative summary states that Jacobs told Witness 1 that she could only see a white man in the deputy director position, which excluded Witness 1 because she was neither white nor a man. The investigation report said that another witness, Witness 2, stated that Witness 1 came to her “really upset” and said that Jacobs had been racist towards her. The investigation also reported that Witness 2 said part of Jacobs’ reasoning was that Witness 1 would not actually want the position because Witness 1 has a son. 

Witness 2 said that she was initially shocked by Jacobs’ comments to Witness 1.

“She stated that [Jacobs] ‘just didn’t get it,’ and that the public needs to be able to trust the people in the office. She stated that [Jacobs’] leadership was very troublesome sometimes,” the report read.

In defending herself to the investigators, the report said that Jacobs “said she had a point of frustration at [OLEO’s] inability to move issues forward with the Sheriff’s Office. Outside of that, she can’t remember anything specific.” 

While the investigation also reported that Jacobs had Witness 1 apply for the position, Witness 1 said there was no formal process. There were also no other candidates nor were there any open calls for the position, Witness 1 said. She was eventually hired.

The investigation also noted that Witness 2 became upset during the investigative interview process. Witness 2 has since left OLEO and that she “was so glad to be gone,” the investigation reported.

In its analysis of this allegation, the investigation found that Jacobs’ conduct towards Witness 1 constituted discrimination, even though Witness 1 eventually became deputy director because “it is not necessary to establish that the person was adversely affected by the actions or failure to act, so the fact that [Jacobs] eventually hired Witness 1 for the position after she was called out for her failure to act does not preclude a finding of discrimination.”

The report also said that Jacobs’ initial disinclination to consider Witness 1 for the deputy director position may not have risen to the level of unlawful discrimination but still sent a negative message that may have resulted in a hostile environment.

In the second allegation, multiple witnesses said Jacobs stated she could not invite OLEO staff to a Roe v. Wade party because not all of them had uteruses. To these staff members, this indicated that Jacobs did not consider transgender women to be real women. A couple of these same witnesses said Jacobs gestured towards her genital region when explaining why she did not want to invite OLEO staff.

When investigators asked her if she had gestured towards her genital area and said, “It’s only for females, but I haven’t had an issue yet with having to invite someone who is not a female,” Jacobs told investigators that she didn’t remember saying that or gesturing.

The investigation partially substantiated this allegation, as it found that Jacobs made these comments in the context of not wanting to exclude a male member of OLEO staff. It also found that she did gesture towards her genital region, but that she “did not say anything about women who are transgender, and the comment and gesture could have been to illustrate that the invitees were limited to women because the party was about women’s reproductive rights.”

The investigation found no evidence that Jacobs’ decision not to invite OLEO staff to the party affected OLEO staff’s work, but still found that her comments constituted “‘unwelcome … verbal or physical conduct relating to an individual and based on a protected status,” based on Jacobs’ rationale for not inviting all OLEO staff to the party.

In the third allegation the firm investigated, Jacobs was accused of stereotyping a male staff member based on his size and race (he was white). The investigation reported that Jacobs had said he was a “a bigger guy so it’s easier for him to interact with the Sheriff’s Office.” Witness 4 told investigators that this employee, Witness 3, has expressed insecurity about his size in the past.

The OLEO staffer in question told investigators that Jacobs often brought up his size. He said that Jacobs apparently believed it to be a compliment but that it made him uncomfortable. He also said that Jacobs often said that both his size and his race played a role in his ability to get along with King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) personnel.

In speaking with investigators about the race aspect of this issue, Witness 4 also told investigators that Jacobs’ comments made her wonder whether Jacobs had excluded her from certain interactions with the KCSO based on Witness 4’s race and gender.

Jacobs admitted to investigators that she had probably made comments about OLEO staff’s size, race, and gender making it either easier or more difficult to do their jobs and interact with the KCSO. However, she told investigators that both she and other OLEO staffers had noticed and acknowledged that “the law enforcement folk seem to respond especially well to Witness 3.” 

When asked specifically whether it had to do with Witness 3’s size or gender, the investigation reported that Jacobs “doesn’t remember that being a centerpiece, but she may have said he’s a big guy and they respond well to him. She can’t place exact context or words, but she may have said something to that effect.”

The investigation found that Jacobs’ remarks on Witness 3’s size did not constitute a policy violation, but that her comments about his race and gender still “constituted ‘unwelcome … verbal or physical conduct relating to an individual and based on a protected status.’” It also found that her comments negatively affected Witness 4.

“For example, [Jacobs’] comments implied that Witness 3’s success was due to his protected status, rather than his efforts to develop trust with the Sheriff’s Office or the quality of his work product,” the report read.

“Similarly, [Jacobs’] comments were unwelcome in that they caused Witness 4 to question whether she was denied the opportunity to connect with the Sheriff’s Office as much as the white male in a similar position,” the report continued. “The perception that ‘the Sheriff’s Office may not receive Witness 4 as well’ does not excuse [Jacobs’] conduct in making such comments.”

Investigators concluded that Jacobs’ comments constituted “harassment in violation” of County policy but did not rise to the level of illegal discrimination or harassment. The investigation stated that Jacobs instead engaged in inappropriate conduct.

The fourth allegation involved Jacobs telling other staff members she did not want to invite OLEO staff out for social events because Witness 3 did not have a partner and she didn’t want him to feel excluded. The investigation found that she did say these things but that they did not constitute a policy violation. However, once again, they constituted inappropriate conduct under King County policy.

In the fifth allegation, the investigation found that Jacobs had flipped past a mixed-race applicant’s resume because she saw his picture and said that he was just another white man. In reality, the investigation said, this person was hapa, a Hawai‘ian word that meant this person had mixed ancestry (the report said he had Asian and white ancestry).

Witness 1 was helping Jacobs sort through applicants’ resumes when Jacobs made this comment. The investigation report said that Jacobs’ comment “rubbed Witness 1 the wrong way because she’d gone through his application already in detail. She believed he was of mixed race, the report said, because his resume detailed extensive work with the AAPI community. Jacobs’ comment also upset her on a personal level, but the report said Witness 1 was unsure what to do at the time. 

Witness 1 spoke with King County’s Employee Assistance Program (EAP), which she told investigators made her feel encouraged to go further. She told Jacobs how her comment made her feel and that it was illegal for Jacobs to have said that. Witness 1 said that Jacobs thanked her for bringing it to her attention. Two other people whom investigators spoke with to examine this allegation reported second-hand knowledge of the incident.

But Witness 1 said it wasn’t the first time she had had to speak with Jacobs about brushing off applicants. Though the report didn’t detail the other times, it did note that Witness 1 believed it was a serious situation, because OLEO had recommended that the KCSO go through bias training. If Jacobs was not aware of the biases she had and how they showed up, the report said, “then she can’t correct it.  Also, they talk about racial justice and racial equity in their work and it seems so contrary to what they do.”

Jacobs confirmed with investigators that she had in the past said things that have made OLEO employees uncomfortable or that they thought were inappropriate. She also confirmed that she recalled the conversation in question and that she had “said something to Witness 1 about how she was careless and not looking at his application more closely and will not do it again.”

In its analysis of this allegation, the investigation said that Jacobs’ comment constituted discrimination under King County policy because applicants were treated differently based on how Jacobs perceived their race. Because Jacobs made an assumption about an applicant’s race, she initially disqualified him from consideration for the job. This meant that even if he were the most qualified for the job, he may not have gotten it based on Jacobs’ racial assessment.

In the sixth allegation the investigators examined, Jacobs allegedly told Witness 2 that another person in the report, Witness 7, was a “blowhard” and “gestured giving fellatio.” The investigation report said that Witness 2 “thought it was ridiculous and laughed.”

Jacobs told investigators that she did indeed call Witness 7 a “blowhard” and that Witness 2 had chided her for allegedly using “vulgar terms.”

Jacobs said that she did not remember gesturing giving fellatio. Jacobs said that, instead, she meant — and explained to Witness 2 — that a “blowhard” was someone “who takes up a lot of space and talks a lot.” Thus, Jacobs said, “a gesture of fellatio wouldn’t fit with that.” She said that when she told Witness 2 her own understanding of the word, Witness 2 said, “Oh, I didn’t know that.”

The investigation found that while Jacobs did call Witness 7 a “blowhard,” the evidence was “unclear” with regards to whether she meant giving fellatio or whether Witness 2 had simply made a mistake. 

The investigation did not substantiate the claim that Jacobs had meant anything inappropriately sexual in using the term and therefore determined that she did not violate policy in this instance.

A seventh allegation focused on comments Jacobs allegedly made and interactions she had with people who had mental health issues. Witness 4 “stated that there have been multiple times when Witness 8 has disregarded these complainants because of her knowledge of their mental health” and that Jacobs referred to one person in particular as a “frequent flier” whom she had on at least one occasion been happy not to interact with.

Witness 4 also recalled that, around November 2019, a woman who had mental health issues came in with a valid complaint. Jacobs allegedly said that she couldn’t interact “with people like that,” the investigation read.

“It was jarring to Witness 4 because of the profession they are in. Witness 4 stated that she and [Jacobs] and Witness 3 had a meeting about it where they brainstormed ways that [Jacobs] could approach the situation because [Jacobs] did not want to call the complainant [on the phone], who was asking for the Director,” the report read. 

“[Jacobs] did end up calling or emailing the complainant, but [she] told Witness 4 never to forward her complaints like that again,” the report continued. “When asked what Witness 4 would do instead of involving [Jacobs], Witness 4 stated now that Witness 1 is back” — she had been gone around November 2019, the report earlier explained — “Witness 4 would talk to Witness 1. If Witness 1 wasn’t there, Witness 4 would brainstorm with Witness 3 to figure out something, because Witness 4 will never do that again.”

Another witness, Witness 6, said that Jacobs made a comment along the lines of, “they’re crazy,” in reference to a community member who frequents KCC meetings and “presents himself ‘in a little incoherent way.’” Witness 6 said that this person’s complaints were often off-tangent and that sometimes he was very calm, while other times, he was loud and a bit disruptive.

“‘You have to reel that in,’” Witness 6 said in the report. 

The report continued with further statement from Witness 6: “What she means is that he was outside [Jacobs’] office because the seating area is there. Witness 4 stated that [Jacobs] came out to remind him that he can’t be that loud, that somebody would be with him shortly; and yelling at no one in particular is not how his complaint’s going to be taken in.”

The report stated that another witness, Witness 5, said Jacobs appeared anxious in front of this person and did not interact with him appropriately, in Witness 5’s personal assessment. Later, though, when Witness 5 spoke with Jacobs about this, she said that Jacobs was receptive and that she had not seen her display similar behavior since.

Witness 2 stated that Jacobs called someone “retarded,” but Jacobs told Witness 2 that she used it as a statement of fact, not as a negative value judgement. However, that person did not seem impaired in any way, which is why Witness 2 said she was caught off-guard. She had been raised not to call anyone “retarded,” she told investigators.

Jacobs told investigators that she is sure, at some point, she had used the word, “crazy” but that she is trying to stop doing that. With regards to the person she didn’t want to interact with, she admitted that she probably had said something to the effect of what Witness 4 had remembered. 

According to the report, Jacobs also said that with regards to the woman she initially didn’t want to interact with that she felt that it was “not a good use of her time as Director to speak with complainants,” as she didn’t “have anything to offer in general and feels people who are trained should do the work.” Jacobs told investigators that she was “not best-suited because it takes an understanding of the full range of what they are bringing to OLEO.” In the end, Jacobs said, she spoke with the complainant and sent her a letter.

Jacobs told investigators that she wasn’t uncomfortable when the person whom Witness 5 spoke about came into the office but that it was a challenge when he did come in. She explained to investigators that OLEO had been working out an area where complainants could sit and wait, because the landlord would not allow them to have chairs outside the office.

“[Jacobs] stated that he came in and filled out a complaint form and sat on the couch outside [her] office, and he was talking to staff super-loud,” the report read. “She asked if he would not mind lowering his voice, and he said, of course, he knew he was loud, and she thinks that was a fine interaction.”

Jacobs also denied to investigators that she used the word “retarded,” saying explicitly that it would shock her if she had used it. She told investigators that she did not find the word preferable or acceptable and was mindful not to use it.

When asked whether she could remember the incident Witness 2 alleged to investigators, Jacobs told investigators that she could not remember this and “that the only person she would refer to is herself, and from that context, it doesn’t sound like that would be it. [Jacobs] stated that that scenario is confusing to her and very unfamiliar.”

Though the investigation found that Jacobs likely did and said everything as alleged, her comments and conduct did not rise to the level of a discrimination policy violation. They also did not constitute harassment. 

The eighth and final allegation, a brief one, stated that Jacobs told Witness 2 that “there was something about” a Black man that she just didn’t like. 

“This Black man had been a pimp 30 years prior to the interaction, but had since become an advocate for social justice and change. It was a person with whom Witness 2 had worked hard to form a relationship,” the report said. The report said that Witness 2 found Jacobs’ comments to be “a barrier of an attitude on doing police accountability work and serving the community they are serving.”

Jacobs confirmed to investigators that she had said this but that, at the time, she found the presence of the man in question to be “domineering,” the report said. However, her feelings had since changed somewhat, the report said.

“She stated that he has a strong personal presence and tightly controls a room in a meeting context, and she did not feel there was much space for others to take leadership,” the report said. “[Jacobs] stated that was not within her role, but in her observation of the dynamics of the organization he founded and runs.”

The investigation found that while Jacobs did make that comment, there was not enough evidence to support that it was because of his race or gender. Thus, the investigation concluded, she did not violate policy.

The report concluded that, overall, there was a “preponderance of evidence” to support findings of discrimination in violation of County policy. The investigation substantiated five of the allegations against Jacobs. It also stated that some of her conduct was “inconsistent” with County policy and did not demonstrate appropriate behavior for the staffers who worked under her.

Jacobs gave a written response to the report, in which she stated that the issues raised in the report, given to her on July 4, 2020, “require that I exercise more care around communication with my coworkers and that I ensure that they feel comfortable addressing concerns with me. I can and will make these adjustments, and they are already underway.”

“We have been working with consultants to facilitate this dialogue and develop into a high- performing team (see attached report from Athena Group),” Jacobs wrote, referring to a business management consulting firm based in Olympia, Washington.

In her response, Jacobs also offered more context to some of the allegations and her responses in the original investigation.

With regards to the “white male comment” she had made to Witness 1, Jacobs said that she “did not seek to preferentially hire a white male in the Deputy Director position or in any other role at OLEO.

“The fact that I observed the advantages that males (especially white males) have in dealing with other males in law enforcement settings does not mean that I condone such dynamics — in fact, it means exactly the opposite,” she wrote. 

“In my early days on the job, my interactions with KCSO Sheriff John Urquhart and members of his team were often frustrating, demoralizing, and difficult,” Jacobs continued. “This led me to comment on the role of gender dynamics in how KCSO responded to OLEO, and whether a male may be treated differently than OLEO’s all-female staff at the time. As I thought was evident in my conversations with the investigator and others, I made these comments with a sense of irony and deep frustration.”

With regards to her comments about Witness 3’s size and race, Jacobs wrote that “any suggestion that I hired ‘a white male (Witness 3) to interact with the Sheriff’s Office’ is factually incorrect. 

“The hiring decision for the position of Investigations Monitor was made jointly by myself and Adrienne Wat in her capacity as my deputy, and the position was offered to that individual only after a Black male candidate, our first choice, declined the job for another offer,” she wrote.

Jacobs admitted that she “did later comment on how well KCSO personnel responded to Andrew Repanich [Witness 3] as a male, and how readily he established rapport compared to the females in the office. 

“Katy Kirschner [another OLEO staffer] herself brought to my attention that KCSO personnel gave their attention to [Repanich] and didn’t really ‘see’ her,” Jacobs wrote. “I do not endorse these realities, but I have certainly discussed them. I continue to resist them as they do a disservice to all.”

Jacobs also stated in the letter that she never viewed pregnancy or motherhood as a barrier to hiring Witness 1 — OLEO’s current interim director, Adrienne Wat, according to Jacobs’ letter — as OLEO’s deputy director.

“When it came time to hire for the Deputy Director position, I promoted Adrienne Wat [Witness 1],” Jacobs wrote. “Although she did not have managerial experience, I believed in Adrienne’s talent and potential, appreciated her good work, and expected that we could grow into our roles together. I certainly did not view her pregnancy or motherhood as any barrier to her success in that position.”

With regards to her comment about the hapa applicant, Jacobs wrote that she recognized that it was “critical that I exercise great care so as not to exacerbate stereotypes or tensions” that already exist as a result of systemic racism in law enforcement and that create issues of accountability and trust.

“For example, during the process of reviewing candidates for the community engagement position, I made an inappropriate comment to Adrienne about one of the candidates appearing to be “just another white guy,’” Jacobs wrote of her comment about the hapa applicant. “Shortly thereafter, she shared with me that the comment had bothered her and why. I immediately responded that she was right, that I was sorry and that it would not happen again. It has not and it will not.”

She also addressed her language choices, saying that the investigation “discusses issues concerning poor word choices on my part” in several instances. 

“I have used some terms that are not appropriate even when used casually and with no ill intent,” Jacobs wrote. “Ever since being made aware of the response to certain comments within this Investigation I have actively sought to alter my language choices and have made other intentional changes around communication style.”

Jacobs concluded the letter by stating again that she had taken the feedback seriously and engaged the services of Athena Group, the management consulting firm. She said that she would always work with her staff “in good faith” and that she believed she and her staff had “clear next steps” with regards to developing better workplace practices and understanding of each other’s work styles and feedback. She closed the letter by saying that she was “determined to improve, and where I have had success, I am determined to do even more to fulfill the vision for strong and meaningful independent police oversight.”

But the Council vote meant that she never got that chance.

As the Emerald noted above, the vote was close, with just one councilmember tipping the balance in the Council’s decision not to renew Jacobs’ contract. Councilmembers Rod Dembowski and Dave Upthegrove expressed concern over not rehiring her, but other councilmembers, like Claudia Balducci, disagreed. In a press release published the night before the Council’s vote, Balducci said that councilmembers held several executive meetings before coming to a decision to accept the investigation’s findings. In the press release, Balducci acknowledged Jacobs’ work at OLEO but said the agency would “benefit from new leadership.”

It does not appear that the Council took into account Jacobs’ engagement of Athena Group to help her with workplace behavior and relationships. When the Emerald asked the King County Council about this, Council Communications Manager Daniel DeMay said that County code prohibited him from speaking about the issue due to the tort claim Jacobs has filed against the County. A tort claim is civil claim in which the claimant has suffered damages due to the alleged actions of another. In her $2 million tort claim, Jacobs alleged sex and gender discrimination.

After the initial publication of this article, the Emerald learned that the day after the Employment and Administration Committee’s vote on Aug. 18, 2020, not to renew Jacobs’ contract, Law & Justice Committee Chair Councilmember Girmay Zahilay appears to have made a point to proactively bar public comment in support of Jacobs during the public comment portion of a Law & Justice Committee meeting.

In the public comment portion of the meeting, Zahilay said that “public comment must be related to items on today’s agenda.” About a minute later, he stated that he wanted “to repeat a point above.

“Public comment must be about a specific item on the agenda above. This is not general public comment that you sometimes find at full Council,” Zahilay said. “So, if you are speaking about an item that is not on this agenda or that is outside the scope of this committee, I will ask the clerk to mute you.

“Indeed, if you have noted … as you signed up for public comment that you are calling about a topic that’s not on the agenda or outside of the scope of this … committee, you will not even be called on,” Zahilay said.

Discussion of Jacobs’ contract or position at OLEO was not included on the agenda. However, it appears that several members of the public were indeed waiting to make a statement in support of Jacobs. Only Frank Gittens, Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens’ father, was allowed to speak in support of Jacobs towards the end of the meeting. Gittens’ comment begins at the 1:39:00 mark of the meeting linked above.

Zahilay did not state the public comments rules more than once in the public comment portion of the following Law & Justice Committee meeting on Sept. 2, 2020, or highlight that public commenters were barred from speaking about anything not on the agenda. He also did not do this in the public comment portion of the Law & Justice Committee meeting on June 24, 2020, the meeting right before the Aug. 19, 2020, meeting that had members of the public waiting to comment (the July 22, 2020, meeting did not have members of the public waiting to comment).

This concludes part four of this series of articles. Look for part five coming soon.

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 PIXNIO. Used under Creative Commons license.