On Monday, the King County Council unanimously voted to approve a motion ordering the Sheriff’s Office to review training for deputies on how to better interact with citizens. The motion’s sponsor, Council President Joe McDermott, said that the goal of the motion is to give deputies the tools they need to engage with people in mental or behavioral crises without resorting to lethal force.
“The plan we’ve asked for would tell us how they would go about training by the end of 2018,” McDermott said. “That could be a real audacious goal, but we have to set that goal because we have cases like Tommy Le. So let’s get training out to our deputies as soon as possible.”
The vote comes less than a week after revelations that a deputy who recently killed Tommy Le, a high school senior, did so by shooting him twice in the back. Police say Le held a pen, which deputies say they believed to be a knife, and may have been having some kind of psychotic episode. As we reported, the fact that Le was shot in the back didn’t become public until the Le family released the findings of Tommy Le’s autopsy. They say the autopsy shows a pattern of deception around the circumstances that led to his killing.
But it was a prior deputy slaying which originally precipitated these changes. In October 2016 on the Muckleshoot Reservation, King County deputies shot to death Renee Davis, a pregnant mother who they said was holding a handgun.
Deborah Jacobs, director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), referred to Davis’ killing in a June 29 letter to Sheriff John Urquhart that made three recommendations for improving community-police relations. First, all commissioned officers should complete 40 hours of Crisis Intervention Training, with annual brush ups. Second, there should be a CIT coordinator to make that happen. Third, the Sheriff’s Office should review and revise its existing policies to “emphasize that an officer must take all possible steps not to aggravate a situation and then take steps toward de-escalation” when dealing with someone in a mental or behavioral health crisis.
“The de-escalation policy should specifically include slowing down, active listening, verbal persuasion, and consideration that physical confrontation (including rushing to pat someone down for weapons) may aggravate the situation,” wrote Jacobs. She said she’s “supportive of the proposal put forth” in McDermott’s motion.
Urquhart also supports the motion. At a KCC Law and Justice Committee Meeting on Tuesday, August 29, he dramatically wove together “three events in the past 24 hours” that showed the “critical importance” of improved deputy training. One was the publication of a video recorded the previous week which showed a gunman stick up a motorcyclist, then later identify himself as a King County detective. The second was the shooting and wounding, Urquhart said, of a domestic abuse suspect who tried to sneak up on deputies with a gun during the night. The third had taken place outside the Courthouse that morning, when an unbalanced homeless man allegedly threatened Urquhart and another officer with a pair of scissors. “Using de-escalation techniques, we got him to back off before he could stab us,” said Urquhart. (Security video of the incident, published by The Seattle Times, shows a remarkably cool reaction from Urquhart when man rushes up behind him.) Police later chased the man down.
The common thread between these disparate events, Urquhart said, was training. “All of these issues revolve around the training that we’re talking about here,” he said, “whether it’s deescalation, when to use force, or how to deal with the public in a manner that is respectful and will be accepted by the public. That’s why this is critically important.”
At that same meeting, representatives from Chinatown/International District also voiced support for McDermott’s motion. Le’s death “could have been avoided potentially with deescalation techniques and crisis intervention training,” said Joseph Lachman, the incoming president of the Seattle chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. Le, he said, “was not armed with any kind of lethal weapon. He’s not a large and physical presence.”
C/ID Public Safety Coordinator Sonny Nguyen warned that confidence in police among the neighborhood’s denizens has eroded to the point that the vast majority of crimes go unreported. A recent survey among residents found that 36 don’t trust the police, Nguyen said, and 35 percent disagree with the statement “The police keep the C/ID safe.”
Both Nguyen and McDermott called extra training a good “first step.” But will throwing more money into training police be enough to stop them from killing so often?
“I don’t think anyone knows an exhaustive list of what we need to do,” said McDermott on Monday, after the full County Council voted to approve his motion. “I think training is a key piece, key next step at least, and what more elements do we need? We need to figure that out together, the Council with the Sheriff’s office and the community.” McDermott says he expects a report back from the Sheriff’s office on how to institute the trainings by December 1, and hopes to have the trainings instituted by the end of next year.
A previous version of this post mispelled Deborah Jacobs’ first name.