Watchdog group faults King County Sheriff's Office's handling of misconduct complaints

SEATTLE -- The King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) released a report Tuesday that looked into how internal investigations at the King County Sheriff’s Office have been handled.

“We undertook this review after noticing inconsistent handling of complaints from the public, and growing concern that serious complaints were not properly addressed,” said OLEO Director Deborah Jacobs.

The report from the watchdog group specifically looked into the classification system of complaints and found more than 100 cases in 2016, when John Urquhart was heading the office, that it says may have needed a more thorough investigation.

The review of about 280 randomly selected complaints filed in 2016 revealed significant inconsistencies with the classification of complaints, according to OLEO.

“They were either classified incorrectly or there was insignificant justification for how it was classified that way. Ultimately, when you add up the numbers, 185 more cases that merited formal investigation and potentially did not go to OLEO for review,” said Adrienne Wat, senior law enforcement analyst.

OLEO engaged the Daigle Law Group, a national expert on law enforcement agency operations and risk management, to analyze how the Sheriff’s Office determines which misconduct complaints it will investigate. Presently, the Sheriff’s Office classifies incoming complaints into three categories:

• Non-investigatory Matter - even if the facts are true, the allegation does not amount to a policy violation.
• Supervisor Action Log – include allegations of minor policy violations that are sent to the employee’s supervisor to address.
• Inquiries – allegations involving misconduct that are formally investigated.

The Daigle Law Group conducted a review of 280 complaints received in 2016 and how the classifications were handled. Key findings from this review were:

• Of the files reviewed, half of the complaints classified as “non-investigatory matters” were classified incorrectly, or contained insufficient justification for that classification.
• Some of the complaints that were classified incorrectly involved allegations about excessive force, illegal search and seizure, discourtesy, and biased-based policing.
• There was a lack of documentation/explanation for how the reviewer made the initial complaint classification.
• There was a lack of standardization for investigation reports of all complaints, regardless of how the complaint is classified.

Wat says from a public’s point of view, some of the complaints were not taken as seriously as they should have and cited one case as an example.

“I’ve seen some files, for example, where somebody was alleging that they were thrown on the ground by an officer and that officer used excessive force. And, that complaint was classified as a non-investigatory matter after a separate review said the force was in policy, so rather than do an investigation where they interview the complainant and do those kinds of steps, that wasn’t done,” said Wat.

“You’ll get no argument here, that was improper. So, moving forward, we have established very clear processes,” said Liz Rocca, chief of staff for the sheriff’s office.

Rocca says in the first six months of this new administration they’ve already made significant changes, including a new captain of the internal investigations unit.

“Sheriff Johanknecht welcomes oversight and embraces it,” said Rocca.

OLEO says they have noticed improvement since Mitzi Johanknecht took over the sheriff’s office.

The report recommended a restructuring of the entire classification system and increasing the staff size of the internal investigation unit, among other things.

“We have 4 investigators to investigate nearly 600 complaints a year,” said Rocca.

Among other changes, Johanknecht’s office is looking into moving the internal investigation unit outside of the sheriff’s office location, which they say will help the public feel more comfortable if they need to come in and make a complaint.