Two memorable video images linger from the World Trade Organization demonstrations: King County Sheriff Dave Reichert animatedly waving his arms, chasing after amused looters fleeing from the downtown Seattle Radio Shack store; and a King County Sheriff’s officer in riot gear ordering an unwitting young woman to roll down her car window, then showering her and a passenger with pepper spray.
For the emotions-on-his-sleeve, silver-maned Reichert, 49, the WTO foot chase and his public criticisms of Seattle Mayor Paul Schell have boosted his already dashing image (he personally collared at least three other lawbreakers in the past two years.)
But for his department, the deputy who seemingly went out of the way to assault WTO bystanders raises new concerns about misconduct under the watch of a professed by-the-book sheriff, who, depending on the beholder, is either a sincere if slightly naﶥ lawman or a wily political opportunist.
“He’s an interesting mix,” says a county official close to the sheriff’s operations, who did not wish to be named. “To those who know him, he’s a real stand-up guy. On the other hand, he sometimes goes for the headline without thinking things through.”
The headlines have been good for him lately—amid the stench of WTO, he came out smelling of roses. The current love-in reached its ludicrous zenith last week when Mike Patrick, executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs—and onetime candidate for Reichert’s job—and Bill Hanson, president of the Washington State Troopers Association, called for the resignation of Paul Schell, arguing, among other reasons, that he was no Dave Reichert.
“Where Mayor Schell was timid, Sheriff Reichert was strong,” they wrote in a Seattle Times op-ed piece, comparing the WTO strategies of the two. “Where Mayor Schell was uncertain, Sheriff Reichert was decisive. Where Mayor Schell instilled fear, Sheriff Reichert inspired hope.”
They weren’t “advocating Sheriff Reichert take over City Hall,” they said. Just nominating him for sainthood, perhaps.
Reichert’s take? He’s simply the people’s sheriff, elected by a landslide two years ago. “I answer to the citizens of King County,” he noted last week.
The swift post-WTO groundswell for Sheriff Dave has no deeper significance, he indicates, than an expression of support for his actions. This is a posture he’s so far maintained around his office, observers say, keeping it a mostly politics-free zone.
The politicking of sheriffs past is what persuaded the county council to keep the job an appointed position in the three decades prior to Reichert’s election. Some observers see his appearance on the WTO stage, and now his rising star, as a step back in time—to those memorable days when the sheriff and prosecutor called press conferences, appearing with the latest crime suspect sandwiched between them, who readily confessed that yes, he killed all those people, but he’s right sorry about it.
Reichert asserts his office is impartial and independent from all, including the man who first named him interim sheriff in 1997, County Executive Ron Sims. “I am a separately elected official, as well as a professional, 28-year police veteran,” he told the Weekly. “I did not consult with Ron Sims about what my deputies should do or should not do [during WTO].”
Reichert’s status has become near-celebrity to law-and-order types in wake of his mayoral critiques and the seemingly flawless performance of his anti-riot troops—who, he notes with some apparent irritation, had once been relegated to the WTO bench.
“We had no plan for controlling demonstrations within the City of Seattle, since we not only didn’t expect to be deployed there, we had no police responsibility there either,” he says. “Our role always was one of back-up. . . . SPD said they would call us if we were needed. However,” he adds, “their feeling all along was that we would not be needed, and they communicated this to us several times” (before indeed having to call in sheriff’s officers to bolster the front line).
Reichert’s department insists the window-knocking pepper spray complaint is its only formal case of WTO misconduct, suggesting most of the several hundred county officers performed dutifully in the face of the protesters—who sometimes baited and spat upon them and threw objects. (A separate county department, Corrections, faces many claims of jail brutality.)
But who busted all those heads? Just the hoards of Seattle officers and their suburban backups? Can the sheriff know there aren’t other offenders—dozens, even—from his ranks? Demonstrators say it was virtually impossible to identify any officer who allegedly assaulted them—a fact borne out by the sheriff’s own inability to locate the videotaped pepper sprayer until he came forward after two weeks.
“I think it’s a little too early,” says a City Hall official, “to be handing out WTO humanitarian awards across the street.”
Reichert says he’ll wait until WTO reviews are in. But he’s made his feelings clear on whom to blame for that big mess downtown, rapping the mayor’s stand- back plan that allowed rioters to destroy businesses to the tune of $3 million. During Paul Schell’s subsequent private blow-up with Reichert—reportedly calling him a lunatic whose career he would destroy—the mayor claimed the sheriff staged the Film At Eleven foot chase (which the onetime prep football quarterback gave up shortly, stomping on the sidewalk like a man trying to scatter birds). The sheriff says his plan was merely “to scare” the looters and not perform for the nearby TV camera that caught his act.
The deed nonetheless earned the self-proclaimed proactive lawman good press, just as another did in 1997: After running a records check on a woman who tried to bum $1 off him, he ended up arresting her for outstanding drug and theft warrants. Ditto in 1998, after being elected sheriff: Aroused from sleep and attired in his slippers, he tailed suspicious vehicles that had passed his home in the early morning. With the aid of his deputies, he arrested several suspects after finding them with guns, knives, chemicals, and drug equipment. Both busts were relayed to Jean Godden’s Seattle Times column, with Reichert personally providing the blow-by-blow details.
Reichert indicates he has no intention of giving up his one-man pursuits. He just can’t “let lawbreaking go unabated,” he says, “and when I have the opportunity to make an arrest, I will do so.”
Clearly, Reichert’s every-inch-a-cop persona has earned him a loyal following. As he walked through the King County Courthouse hallway recently at lunchtime, heading for his office with a sandwich on a plate, nearby deputies all stopped to banter and joke. “Oh sheriff, you shouldn’t have,” said one, reaching for the sandwich.
Still, not everyone is a fan. Though county crime rates in general are dropping, some suburban police and Port of Seattle officials are ticked off by Reichert’s empire-building efforts—such as an attempt to invent a regional police army by incorporating their department into his 600-officer force. Particularly rankling to the suburbans was his proposal to finance the expansion by having local governments share their property tax income with his department. Some saw it as a cunning power move, but a county official chalks it up to political naﶥt麠”Somebody had to sit down with him afterwards and say, ‘Dave, you were asking for money from their budget. They don’t like that.’ He didn’t really understand their reluctance.”
Some county officials question his management ability. His overtime budget is expected to come in more than $1.5 million above projections this year—before WTO costs are added. He’s also been criticized for being overzealous in supporting his troops—such as last year when it was learned he rejected a recommended 15-day suspension of one of his officers, Cam Lefler, who unjustifiably shot and wounded a motorcyclist in 1996. Two years earlier, Lefler had been involved in a car crash that killed a motorist—an offense for which the officer received merely a written reprimand. Together, the two deadly incidents cost the county $900,000 in legal settlements, prompting the motorcyclist’s attorney, Mark Leemon, to worry out loud about “the department’s will or ability to impose discipline on officers who violate its policies.”
Before becoming sheriff, the lifelong Lutheran and onetime pastoral candidate let his reverence run amok in 1994. When raising money for the department’s chaplain by selling sheriff’s department calendars, he ordered officers to peddle them on duty, then backdate vacation requests for the time spent. Reichert was cleared of coercion and cover-up charges by an internal probe, but when the issue was raised anew at his confirmation hearing in 1997, he shed real tears and denied wrongdoing in front of the county council. It played well, and the sheriff has been riding high since.
But the gushing praise today, particularly from Patrick and Hanson in their op-ed piece, could have reap sympathy for the beleaguered Mayor Schell. Novelist and activist Tom Robbins, for one, recently wrote Schell not to let Patrick “intimidate you,” calling Patrick, in Robbinsesque style, “a bigger threat to the city than five busloads of terrorists.”
Besides, just how “decisive” was Reichert during the WTO? Though he argued for a stronger police presence, he concedes he wasn’t making the decisions. “One thing that needs to be stressed,” he says, is that “WTO, right from the beginning, was a City of Seattle event. Everyone understood this. All of the venues were within the city limits, with the exception of the Museum of Flight [Tukwila] and Boeing Field [King County]. We never had a role in the planning process. We attended many joint briefings at SPD, beginning about March, 1999. However, these were not joint planning sessions. A very important distinction!”
As for inspirational? “Public appearances to the contrary,” claims Seattle activist Rick Hangartner, who is familiar with WTO behind-the-scene events, Sims and Reichert “were driving around downtown at one point on November 30th and themselves asked the Seattle Fire Department to turn fire hoses on the protesters. Reichert was also angry and anxious to let the police and sheriff’s deputies loose on the demonstrators.”
Says Reichert’s spokesman John Urquhart, “I know that [fire hose] suggestion was made by someone, but I’ll tell you it wasn’t the sheriff.” (Reichert himself denies the claim and John Wilson, Sims’ chief of staff, says Sims never called for a hosing-down.)
If Reichert was strong where Schell was timid, it’s an impression Reichert helped promote, dissing Schell’s stand-back security, announcing the mayor “didn’t have a clue,” and publicly displaying his contempt after Schell apologized to demonstrators for the violence by some officers.
Yet wasn’t it Reichert who admitted the day after the downtown trashing that police reaction is something “you play by ear. We ended up with too many [demonstrators] too quick”?
Reichert today says he’ll wait until the WTO security review process is completed before commenting further on “what should have been done differently.” But he’s gratified by the support he’s gotten from the public and his officers. “Hopefully,” he says, “people realize that I am first and foremost a cop.”
Says a county official: “He is all cop. And as sincere a person you’ll ever meet. But a little public relations advice wouldn’t hurt.”