KING COUNTY, WA– On Tuesday, the King County Council voted to scale back the autonomy of the county sheriff, moving to make the position appointed rather than elected. The vote also gives the County Council the ability to reduce the scope of the Sheriff’s Office.
According to the Seattle Times, both changes approved by the County Council on 6-3 and 6-2 votes. The changes will be sent to voters as separate ballot measures in November.
Essentially, voters can choose to make the sheriff appointed, rather than elected. They could also choose to let the County Council spell out the specific duties of the sheriff. The vote could lead to one or the other, or both, or neither.
NEW: The Metropolitan King County Council has voted to significantly scale back the autonomy of the county sheriff, moving to make the position appointed, rather than elected, and to give the County Council the ability to scale back the Sheriff’s Office. https://t.co/SDQqqvrSWO
— The Seattle Times (@seattletimes) July 22, 2020
Council member Girmay Zahilay spoke of the changes as a response to the protests against police brutality and systemic racism that have spanned coast to coast since the end of May.
He said in a statement:
“The largest movement in American history, nationally and locally. They have all been saying one central message and that is that we need a new system of public safety.”
“That kind of big, bold, fundamental change I don’t think we can rely on just a sheriff’s department that’s independently elected that we can’t truly oversee.”
Allegedly, other council members have recommended that mental health professionals and social workers respond to emergency calls rather than armed law enforcement.
Council Chair Claudi Balducci said in a statement:
“It just seems very right on point with some of the key demands we’re hearing in this moment, that we rethink how we provide public safety. A civilian response to civilian problems.”
Other council members voted against both measures. Council members Kathy Lambert and Pete von Reichbauer voted against both and Council member Reagan Dunn voted against the appointed sheriff measure.
Currently, the King County’s Sheriff is elected by all voters in the county, like virtually all other Sheriffs. The Sheriff’s Office provides some services like marine patrol and search and rescue operations countywide.
Some other cities contract with the Sheriff’s Office for police services as well.
However, for people living in unincorporated parts of the county, the Sheriff’s Office is their local police department. According to Seattle Weekly, the recommendation to change the sheriff from an elected to an appointed position came from the King County Review Commission.
In particular, Kinnon Williams, who has served as a commissioner, said that appointing a sheriff increases representation for people in unincorporated areas who are directly served by the police department.
King County voters will determine if future sheriffs will be appointed o… https://t.co/VRrIssI6q5
The city officials in King County aim to further politicize the position of sheriff. Allowing the county commissioner to select the sheriff, YOUR sheriff, removes ANY appearance
— Donavan Phillips (@saltofthestreet) July 22, 2020
In addition, King County Council member Rod Dembowski said that by appointing a sheriff, politics are removed from policing. He said moving to an appointed position could reduce tension in the Sheriff’s Office and prevent political factions from forming. He said in a statement:
“We would have a sheriff who would come from a pool of folks beyond just those who are willing to stand for election.”
In contrast, Council member Pete von Reichbauer is skeptical of what Dembowski is saying and of the idea that putting the sheriff under the control of the county council and executive would make the position less political.
He plans to vote against the recommended change.
Kathy Lambert, who represents a largely rural district in east King County, has also expressed her own reservations about the recommended change. She has said that most constituents she has talked with are not in favor of the change.
She said in a statement:
“They do not want to lose their right to vote for the sheriff.”
In saying “they,” Lambert is referring to the people of the county.
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As history has it, the sheriff’s position was an elected position for decades until the 1960’s when allegedly scandals and claims if corruption led voters in the county to enact a Home Rule charter, changing the position to an appointed one.
The sheriff’s position remained an elected one all the way until 1996, when voters in the county approved another charter amendment to make the sheriff’s position in elected position again. The King County’s Sheriff’s Office employees more than 1,000 people.
With an elected sheriff steering the ship, the office has broad authority to enact internal policies with limited oversight from the county council or executive. By changing the position to an appointed one, the Sheriff’s Office would lose that authority.
Watch: At today's jam-packed meeting the Council will discuss placing a charter amendment on the ballot that will make the King County Sheriff an appointed position. Watch LIVE at 1pm: https://t.co/rxEB6v4b9p
— King County Council (@KCCouncil) July 21, 2020
If voters approve the change in November, Sheriff Mitz Johanknecht, elected in 2017, would serve out the remainder of her four-year term and would then be eligible to be appointed as sheriff. Johanknecht lobbied, unsuccessfully, against both ordinances.
The change would also mean the county executive, not the sheriff, represents the county in future bargaining with the sheriff’s deputies union. Currently, the duties of the Sheriff’s Office are established by state law.
Those laws include arresting people who break the law, executing warrants, and court orders and suppressing riots, unlawful assemblies, and insurrections. However, if voters approve, the County Council would be given the power to establish the sheriff’s duties.
They would be able to decrease the sheriff’s duties or combine the office with another department or agency. Currently, several of the smaller cities that contract with the Sheriff’s Office for law enforcement services objected to the changes, saying they were not consulted.
This change could have tremendous impact.
— Donna (@web_buzz) July 16, 2020
The Washington State Sheriff’s Association has strongly opposed the proposal. Commenting back in March 2019:
“Our members feel very strongly that the direct accountability and responsiveness to voters is a critical aspect of the office of sheriff.”
The Sheriff being elected and no doubt stripped of much of his power would set a dangerous precedent during this time. He would have significantly less authority over many situations, specifically riots and insurrection.
We all no that no matter the Presidential outcome in November, we will need our law enforcement leaders to be able to exercise the authority given them. Now let’s see if they actually use it.
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