former oleo director deborah jacobs

Thirty-Nine Percent: The Uphill Battle for Oversight in King County

by Carolyn Bick

This is the fifth and final 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, part three of this series here, and part four of this series here.

Not The First

Former King County Office of Labor Relations senior labor negotiator David Topaz didn’t mince words, when, in the second article in this series, he described to the Emerald how he believed the King County Council (KCC) had never given former Office of Law Enforcement Dir. Deborah Jacobs or the office itself the support needed. But he told the Emerald in a March 22, 2021, interview that it still surprised him “to some degree,” when he learned that the KCC had decided not to renew her contract in September 2020, a decision the Emerald covered in the most recent article in this series.

“I would think, if I were somebody on the Council who wanted someone who was going to — no matter what kind of crap she got from anybody — was going to continue to push the envelope, why wouldn’t you want to keep her?” Topaz rhetorically asked. 

Topaz also continues to hold the belief that the King County Police Officer’s Guild (KCPOG) was at least partly responsible for Jacobs’ downfall, particularly given all the issues and allegations as outlined in the previous three stories in this series. 

“She doesn’t back down. You’d think that’s what [the KCC would] want in that role,” Topaz said. “But, certainly, the police guild had decided that that was not in their best interests, probably for the exact same reasons.”

KCPOG President Mike “Manny” Mansanarez has denied there was ever any bad blood between himself, personally, and Jacobs but has also admitted that Jacobs and former KCPOG President Steve Eggert had “problems” and that the Guild board saw Jacobs as an activist, rather than a neutral party. Under Eggert, the Guild also filed a grievance against Jacobs, as detailed in the first article in this series.

But while Jacobs is not the first OLEO director to face serious workplace accusations, a 2014 Crosscut article appears to confirm that she is the first to receive public punishment.

Documents obtained by Crosscut in 2014 show that Jacobs’ predecessor — OLEO’s first full-time director, Charles Gaither — faced several internal accusations of threatening and unprofessional behavior before his sudden, at least publicly, resignation in September 2014.

But unlike Jacobs, the KCC apparently gave Gaither the benefit of the doubt and appears to have been willing to work with him in an attempt to correct his workplace behavior.

Alejandra Calderon, a female co-worker within OLEO, said that she felt threatened by the way Gaither was acting in the workplace, an allegation that an internal investigation partially substantiated. Though the investigation did not find he had violated workplace harassment policy, it did find that he raised his voice at Calderon and other OLEO employees when he was, as the Crosscut article put it, “displeased.”

Because of this, the KCC decided to have Gaither undergo professional workplace training, using $11,500 worth of King County funds to hire a job coach for Gaither to help him “improve his workplace interactions,” the Crosscut article said.

As noted in the fourth story in this series, by the time the vote about whether to renew her contract came around, Jacobs herself had already engaged and was working with a firm to help her improve in the workplace, and it does not appear that the Council took this into account when it voted not to renew her contract. Additionally, as also noted at the end of the fourth article, Councilmember Girmay Zahilay appears to have proactively barred public comment in support of Jacobs at an Aug. 19, 2020, Law & Justice Committee meeting by highlighting the fact that public comment rules bar members of the public from speaking about topics not on the agenda — something he does not appear to have done before or since.

According to the Crosscut article, Gaither’s job coach said in a March 3, 2014, assessment that Gaither would “profit greatly by learning to monitor what he is projecting emotionally in facial expression, gestures, vocal style.

“Mr. Gaither should work on skills and capacities that will help him maintain his composure in situations that are emotionally provocative or ‘hot’ for him,” the coach said, according to Crosscut.

When the Emerald asked the KCC why Gaither was offered professional counselling but Jacobs was not, Council Communications Manager Daniel DeMay said that County Code prohibited him from speaking about the issue due to Jacobs’ tort claim against the County.

The recommendation from the job coach was hardly the end of it for Gaither, though. On August 1, 2014, just months after the professional assessment, the Crosscut article said, Gaither faced yet another accusation.

OLEO staffer Tess Mullarkey formally requested whistleblower status, accusing Gaither of both acting unprofessionally and, at times, using profanity. In this formal request, she said that she feared for her safety and submitted a 43-page document detailing Gaither’s behavior that started one week after she took the job, the Crosscut article said. In fact, according to Crosscut, Mullarkey was so concerned about her physical safety that she spent $1,700 on home security equipment and got in touch with a threat assessor at the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO).

The Crosscut article detailed some of the accusations Mullarkey levelled against Gaither, including asking her about what she was doing on her lunch break; putting his bare feet on the desk while he and Mullarkey were speaking; picking his cuticles until they bled; and, in Mullarkey’s words, “creeping around and calling the office to know my whereabouts rather than calling me directly.”

The Crosscut article said that Mullarkey told the Council that Gaither “is able to switch from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde in a matter of minutes.”

Former King County Sheriff John Urquhart also filed a complaint against Gaither, the Crosscut article said. In this complaint, Urquhart said that Gaither not only did not forward a citizen’s complaint to the KCSO in a timely manner but also that Gaither had cursed at him in a June 9, 2014, meeting about said complaint. 

Then-King County Councilmember Larry Gossett investigated the matter. Gossett had been working with Gaither, at least briefly, to improve his behavior detailed in the first complaint against him, according to Crosscut. The article said that Gossett also “looked into whether Gaither was disrespectful to Mullarkey and another female staff member,” as he left the June meeting Urquhart had detailed.

While Gossett found that Gaither had mistreated Urquhart, he could not find evidence that he had mistreated Mullarkey or the other woman staff member.

For all of this, the documents Crosscut obtained show that Gossett said that he would “consider imposing a one-week, unpaid suspension as a disciplinary action.” However, according to Crosscut, “Gaither said [at the time of publication] that he never received a copy of that letter, though he had some indication that a suspension was being discussed. He also questioned why the Council did not retain an outside investigator.”

Gaither was never suspended nor is it clear the Council ever settled on the best way to deal with the allegations against him. Instead, Gaither abruptly quit on Sept. 5, 2014, before any punitive measures could be meted out. Two days before he quit, he also filed a $1 million lawsuit against the County, citing emotional distress. 

Gaither told Crosscut that both the Council and the KCSO were trying to characterize him as an angry Black man. He also denied the accusation that he had not forwarded the citizen complaint to the KCSO within the allotted three-work-day time period, despite Gossett finding otherwise, arguing that the complaint was not about a specific officer and therefore the deadline did not apply.

The Crosscut article noted that OLEO was apparently underperforming, turning out far fewer cases than expected.

Interestingly, Gaither faced accusations that he had improperly accessed internal complaint files and spoke publicly about information within said files, a move that the Crosscut article said “did not sit well with some people at the Sheriff’s Office.” A senior human resources officer within the KCSO said that Gaither was only doing it to “embarrass” the KCSO, the Crosscut article said. It also said that other OLEO staff members had been accused of accessing other complaint files.

As the Emerald detailed in its first article in this series, Jacobs and other OLEO staffers had apparently accessed files they should not have, resulting in a secret audit of their activities by KCSO Capt. Marcus Williams. Nothing came of the audit, and it is unclear from the Crosscut article whether Gaither and other OLEO staffers did the exact same thing as Jacobs and OLEO staff under her.

According to The Seattle Times, after he resigned, Gaither settled out of court for $100,000, $84,500 of which he kept and $15,000 of which went to his attorney.

At the time of publication, the Crosscut article said that the Council planned to investigate Mullarkey’s claims. Council Communications Manager Daniel DeMay said that the “Council concluded the investigations mentioned in the Crosscut article and a summary report of investigation was issued on Feb. 25, 2015.”

The KCC’s public information staff sent the Emerald a redacted copy of this final investigation, which was carried out by the Seabold Group. In the report are details about Gaither’s alleged conduct that have not previously been made public. Interested readers can find the report here, but the Emerald has briefly elaborated on issues of note below.

In addition to the issues regarding Gaither’s temper and interpersonal conduct at the office, the investigation found that Gaither deleted or electronically moved public records from his personal OLEO computer on or around his final day in office. These records — 1.3 gigabytes of emails and computer files — were mostly personal or generic in nature, the report said, but many were pertinent to OLEO business and employment. According to the investigation report, these files cannot be located in the County’s records system and, at the time of the report, Gaither still had them in his possession.

The investigation also found that Gaither not only appears to have lost or kept a little more than $1,000 worth of tactical equipment originally purchased for both KCSO officers and OLEO employees with County money —  things like rifle slings, bulletproof vests, folding knives, and extended pistol magazines — but also used about $1,000 of County funds to furnish himself with personal items: a wireless music player, Bose headsets, and a Blackberry Music Gateway. The report also states that he spent $8,000 on preparation courses for the Washington State Bar Exam — though it also notes that an unnamed King County councilmember authorized him to do so — and an additional $365 on a Rosetta Stone Spanish language program.

Gaither also committed the County to a $187-per-month investigative database that he used only for his personal research on individuals, including of an OLEO employee and her husband. This database, the report said, is one investigators use to gather information that includes things like property ownership, criminal history, and litigation history. He also hired a woman he appears to have had a personal relationship with to do 34 hours of work, despite the fact she does not appear to have submitted a request for proposal (RFP), as is the usual route when hiring a person for contract work with the County. For this work, the woman in question was paid $3,700.

Though the report remarked on it only briefly, Gaither told investigators that neither he nor OLEO had enough support from the KCC. This echoes what Topaz told the Emerald about Jacobs and her tenure at OLEO.

Grievance Dropped, Despite Alleged “Irreparable Harm”

As the Emerald detailed in the first article in this series, the King County Police Officer’s Guild (KCPOG) filed a formal grievance against Jacobs on Feb. 4, 2020, for allegedly violating the terms of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) by commissioning an independent party, OIR Group, to produce investigative reports into the death of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens. The CBA is the document that governs the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight’s (OLEO), KCPOG’s, and the King County Sheriff’s Office’s (KCSO) conduct and powers.

Once Jacobs lost her job, the Guild opted to drop its grievance against her. Current KCPOG President Mike “Manny” Mansanarez told the Emerald in a May 14, 2021, interview that it was out of a sense of not wanting to “kick a person when they are down, when they aren’t even here.

“There is no reason to have a grievance if that person is no longer here,” Mansanarez said. “She’s already gone — why draw something out that doesn’t need to be drawn out, because she was gone.” 

Mansanarez also said that even if Jacobs had stayed, the Guild likely would have dropped the grievance, because “the new contract allows” for OLEO to commission independent investigations in the manner Jacobs did. Jacobs allegedly disclosed the names of the officers involved in Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens’ shooting death at the hands of KCSO officers

to OIR Group investigators who prepared an investigative report into the shooting and KCSO’s subsequent internal investigation. As Mansanarez pointed out to the Emerald, the old contract does not allow OLEO’s director to disclose the names of officers in officer-involved shootings.

However, as the Emerald noted in the first article in this series, Jacobs did not disclose the names of the officers involved in Dunlap-Gittens’ shooting death. She provided them to OIR Group for their investigative review. By that point, the officers’ names had been widely publicly known.  

The Guild’s letter, dated Sept. 18, 2020 and sent to Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht and a KCSO’s labor relations negotiator, Sasha Alessi, appears to suggest that the Guild views the King County Council’s (KCC) decision not to renew Jacobs’ contract as at least one way Jacobs could have been held accountable for supposedly violating the CBA.

The letter opens by stating that “KCPOG is dismissing this grievance based upon the fact that the council did not renew the contract for the OLEO director Deborah Jacobs.

“The Guild’s grievance sought to hold the OLEO director accountable for the violation of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) as a remedy. The Guild believes that the OLEO director has now been held accountable, therefore, this grievance is moot,” the letter reads.

The letter goes on to detail that “[w]hile KCPOG is aware that the reason the council choose not to renew Ms. Jacobs was related to her hostile and biased treatment of workers within her office, and not the Guild’s grievance, it was the intent of the Guild in filing the grievance to (1) make certain that the names of Guild members and other identifying information be redacted from the report, and (2) hold Ms. Jacobs be accountable (sic) for her actions in knowingly violating the CBA.

“The Guild believes that the non renewal of Ms. Jacobs’ position as the director because of the reckless and discriminatory manner in which she treated her employees, members of the community and Guild members, served the purpose of holding her accountable for her reckless actions as the OLEO director,” the letter continues. 

The KCPOG’s Feb. 4, 2020, letter notifying the KCSO of the formal grievance against Jacobs said that an appropriate remedy for said grievance would have been to prohibit the release of the report into Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens’ death. But that didn’t happen. The report was released.

The Feb. 4, 2020, letter does not describe any other way for the grievance to be remedied, except to say that the Guild “will need to seek other legal remedies to prevent its release and prevent the irreparable harm the report will cause our membership.”

It’s unclear what other legal remedies the Guild considered, and Mansanarez told the Emerald that he had little familiarity with the original grievance because it had been issued under the KCPOG’s former president. However, Masanarez co-authored and signed the Sept. 18, 2020, letter in which the Guild dropped its grievance, which suggests some familiarity with the matter. Like the Feb. 4, 2020, letter, the Sept. 18, 2020, letter does not detail any other way in which Jacobs could have been held accountable for her alleged actions.

The Sept. 18, 2020, letter closes with the note that just because this grievance has been dismissed does not mean that KCPOG is “waving (sic) any right to file grievances in the future should any successor in the OLEO violate the express language or intent of the parties’ CBA.

“The Guild is committed to working with the interim director and any new director appointed to the OLEO in its mission of making certain that the King County Sheriff’s Office is accountable for providing fair and just police services to all members of the public,” the tail end of the letter reads. “The Guild expects that the interim and any new director of OLEO will similarly be held accountable for their actions.”

The State of Oversight in King County

The real kicker, Cameron McElhinney told the Emerald, is that King County and Seattle have some of the best, most well-developed systems of police oversight in the country. McElhinney is the director of training and education at the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE).

For the thousands of police departments that exist nationwide, McElhinney said in a March 22, 2021, interview, there are a mere handful of oversight agencies — “hovering around 200 oversight entities” for more than 18,000 police departments, to be exact, she said. This is changing, she said, but not quickly.

“When you look at a map of oversight entities in the country, there are just big holes. You’ve got four different entities now in Seattle,” McElhinney said, referencing the City of Seattle’s own three oversight agencies and OLEO, “and then California has oversight up and down. But then you start moving east, and there are just …”

She trailed off, before continuing:

“Missouri, the whole state, has … three oversight entities. Florida, for as big as that state is, very, very few. Texas has four, maybe five, in the whole state,” McElhinney said. She went on to list off a few other places that have oversight entities, such as one in Chicago, Illinois, and one in Madison, Wisconsin, that she said is “brand-new,” but there weren’t too many others.

“And when you figure you’ve got three or four just in Seattle … there are just vast swaths of the United States that have nothing,” McElhinney said.

As for current relations between OLEO and the law enforcement it oversees, OLEO Interim Dir. Adrienne Wat told the Emerald in an email on May 21, 2021, that “OLEO has prioritized improving lines of communication with the KCSO. 

“The efforts have been fruitful, team relationships and constructive dialogue have opened to an extent not previously experienced. This has resulted in more direct and frequent meetings with KCSO about how to increase transparency, accountability, and consistency in the agency,” Wat wrote. 

“OLEO and the KCSO have been able to engage in productive discussion about difficult and divisive topics, especially in the realm of critical incidents,” she continued. “Overall, OLEO feels positively about the KCSO seeking our input and being open to civilian-led oversight. There is a lot of momentum and opportunity for OLEO’s incoming permanent Director to build upon.”

Wat also extensively detailed some of the work OLEO has done in the months since the King County Council decided not to renew Jacobs’ contract. This work includes attending critical incident review board meetings; participating in a workgroup for KCSO’s internal affairs; and providing six policy recommendations, which Wat said is twice as many as OLEO provided in 2020.

KCPOG President Mike “Manny” Mansanarez told the Emerald in his May 14, 2021, interview that he also feels positively about the current relationship between County law enforcement and OLEO.

“I have a really good relationship with everybody, with Adrienne Wat, who is the OLEO director now, and her investigators and managers,” Mansanarez said. “I work well with all of them. I don’t have anything bad to say about anybody. And I don’t think we have a tense relationship, so to speak.”

The KCSO did not respond to request for comment, regarding the relationship between OLEO and the KCSO. Relations between the KCPOG and the KCSO are currently fractious, Mansanarez said, because he recently joined the many elected officials and community organizations that are calling on King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht to resign.

Relationship status aside, it appears that the KCSO still has a ways to go when it comes to the accountability of its officers.

Recently, a team of researchers released a police scorecard based on data compiled for more than 16,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States from 2013 onwards. In some cases, the data stops at 2018 or 2019. The total number of agencies researched is about 16,000 law enforcement agencies — both police departments and sheriff’s departments — and the scorecard’s About section says that the data covers nearly 100% of the U.S. population.

Because the researchers recognize the subjectivity of such an undertaking, the scores are based on what the researchers believe are “a set of common principles that can provide an initial framework for evaluating any agency that responds to issues of public safety.” The researchers scored law enforcement agencies on a percentage scale of 0–100, where 0% is the worst score and 100% is the best score.

The scorecard draws on data to compile sections with which the overall score is calculated. These sections are police funding, police violence, police accountability, and approach to law enforcement. Due to the fact that sheriff’s departments also play a role in operating county jails, the scorecard includes additional parameters by which to score the sheriff’s departments that reflect this role. More information about the project, including full raw data sets, data collection explanations, and parameter definitions can be found on the scorecard’s About page, linked above.

On the whole, the KCSO scored just 39%, putting it on the low end of the scorecard. It should be noted that the data isn’t entirely complete — under “Police Funding, data for Misconduct Settlements” is listed as incomplete — but the scorecard appears to have taken a holistic approach to the issue.

Most notably, the County’s “Police Accountability” score is inauspicious, coming in at just 10%. According to this section, just 19% of misconduct complaints were upheld. But that’s the highest score the KCSO got in the accountability section. The scorecard says that just 5% of criminal misconduct complaints were upheld, 1% of excessive force complaints were upheld, and 0% of discrimination complaints were upheld. Just 6% of total civilian complaints about police misconduct were upheld from 2016–2019.

The scorecard also says that KCSO officers were 2.1 times as likely to kill a Black person as a white person and 1.4 times as likely to kill a Latino person as a white person, based on data from 2013–2020. More than half of arrests made between 2013 and 2019 were for low-level offenses.

The Emerald asked Wat for her thoughts on the score the KCSO received or the scorecard itself. Wat told the Emerald in a May 24, 2021, email that she reviewed both the scorecard and the data, but “without knowing more information regarding the raw data, how the data was interpreted, or how differing law enforcement agency policies were accounted for, I am not able to opine on the scorecard or KCSO receiving a ‘bad rating.’ 

“Some of the data does not match what we have; however, that could be due to various things, including methodology or raw data,” Wat wrote.

NACOLE President Susan Hutson said that, ultimately, she hopes law enforcement will evolve to a model that is community-led, not community-oriented. This could do away with the need for civilian oversight entities like OLEO. But until that happens, she knows from extensive firsthand experience that oversight entities will continue to need to fight to be able to do their jobs.

“We are seeing that [community-led policing] happen here in New Orleans, and all over the country, where communities are saying, ‘No, we want the power to decide discipline. We want the power to decide policy. We want the power … to get access to information,’” Hutson said. “It’s super-important to … lift the standards for oversight. We know it works. We know we do good things. But we also know that half our jobs is fighting for access and to be in the conversation.”

The KCSO did not respond to the Emerald’s request for comment.

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: Former OLEO Dir. Deborah Jacobs. (photo courtesy of Deborah Jacobs)

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