King County Sheriff Solves Nagging Problem of Use-of-Force Complaints: Just Overlook Them

The King County Sheriff's Office appears to have found the solution to police brutality: Don't report it. In 2011, the county internally investigated two use-of-force complaints. The same year, the Seattle Police Department investigated one-hundred-fifty-nine use-of-force complaints. Not surprisingly, the sheriff's office isn't being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for its use of force; the police department is. As county auditors suggested in a report issued this week, you have to wonder whether the sheriff is even accepting brutality complaints anymore.

"Supervisors," states the voluminous performance audit presented to the County Council by outside consulting firm Hillard Heintze LLC, "are not consistently identifying and reporting complaints or incidents of misconduct and policy violations. In its interviews of KCSO management and officers, Hillard Heintze discovered multiple instances where supervisors and commanders did not know about, review, or refer issues to the IIU [Internal Investigations Unit] for review and action."

The auditors randomly selected and reviewed 14 of 732 investigative cases handled or coordinated by the IIU during 2011, along with the two use of force investigations. In just that tiny sample, they found complaints that had been stamped "unfounded" and "not sustained" even when accused officers admitted to the violations.

Though the county's sworn personnel is smaller (650) than Seattle's (1,300), the sheriff's office provides services to a larger population - about 1.8 million people, the report notes (sheriff's officers are also deployed in 12 contract cities around the county as well as in Seattle - staffing the Metro Transit police and stadium forces, for example. They're empowered to make arrests in Seattle, of course, even wrongly, such as this $10 million "shove" ).

So two use-of-force complaints, versus Seattle's 159? It sounds like a bad joke on taxpayers. It also reflects the true value of the ballyhooed Blue Ribbon Panel that then-Sheriff Sue Rahr set up in 2006 to handle department misconduct. (That followed a year-long series by the P-I on deputy misconduct and evidence of a weak internal disciplinary system in the Sheriff's Office, spurring two FBI investigations and other probes).

As the audit itself found, some of the panel's "early implementation efforts were not fully executed or sustained over time. As a result, KCSO is not complying with three of the six Blue Ribbon Panel findings and recommendations that directly tie officer conduct to their supervisors' responsibility to create and sustain a culture of accountability." (While the audit was being conducted, Rahr decided to retire, and take another job with the state, training police officers.)

The audit is effectively an indictment of the department, now in the hands of Rahr's Chief Deputy Steve Strachan, her hand-picked successor. He's running for election this year against a former Rahr spokesperson, retired Sgt. John Urquhart, who says there are now only two detectives staffing the IIU with a combined experience of about seven months in handling misconduct investigations. "That's unacceptable," he says.

Strachan claims he's already taking corrective action -"The culture of change must be initiated by me," he told the Times.

But isn't he one of those top officials the audit says failed the accountability test?

Unfortunately, KCSO leadership has not promoted officer and management accountability through the expectation of rigorous compliance with the department's accountability system and support of the internal investigations function. Revisions to the KCSO accountability process introduced in 2011 inherently rely upon front-line field supervisors to properly initiate, investigate, and document complaints and incidents of misconduct and policy violations by subordinate officers. However, the KCSO chain of command does not properly require them to do so, nor support them when they do.

The result, auditors add, "is a departmental culture that downplays the importance of officer accountability." That's the culture Strachan has been a part of, the one he says he now must change. Let's hope change doesn't begin with another Blue Ribbon panel.

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