An outside report commissioned by the the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), King County Sheriff Office’s official watchdog, found that many complaints against deputies weren’t investigated because they were improperly classified, among other inconsistencies.
Daigle Law Group, the firm contracted to produce the report, reviewed 280 randomly-selected complaints filed against deputies in 2016. Their analysis concluded that of the 120 complaints that weren’t designated for further scrutiny by the department’s Internal Investigations Unit (IIU), half were improperly classified or contained insufficient justification for the designation, despite these complaints containing serious allegations like sexual assault and excessive force.
Furthermore, the report found that of the 120 incidents deemed unworthy of investigation, 38 featured no preliminary investigation to see if the decision was warranted, meaning that the decision was based solely on the subjective perception of the IIU captain—the individual responsible classifying complaints.
Additionally, roughly 30 percent of 130 supposedly minor complaints designated to be handled strictly by deputies’ supervisors were misclassified or poorly justified. Some of these complaints featured allegations like falsehoods in a police report and excessive use of force.
In total, roughly 95 complaints were misclassified or their designation insuffeciently justified.
“OLEO took an interest in conducting this review based on staff observations of significant inconsistencies in intake classifications which caused concern that not all serious complaints were being investigated,” said OLEO senior law enforcement analyst Adrienne Wat at the July 10 King County Council Law and Justice Committee meeting where the report was presented. “The inconsistencies also revealed the significant potential for misclassification of complaints based on preferences or the sole discretion of leadership in the Sheriff’s Office.”
The report also makes recommendations for how the Sheriff’s Office should reform its process for addressing complaints and assessing whether or not to investigate them. These include restructuring the process to make complaint classifications based on complaints’ perceptions rather than preliminary investigations (or lack thereof) conducted by the Sheriff’s Office, improving communication with complainants (the report also found that complainants were infrequently communicated with after they filed allegations), and increasing the staffing capacity of the Sheriff’s IIU. Currently, the unit consists of one captain, four sergeants who serve as the investigators, and one administrator. They are tasked with processing roughly 600 complaints per year.
“I think the policies recommended in this report will go far to ensure that these changes in practice really stay with the Sheriff’s Office,” Wats said.
Liz Rocca, Sheriff Johanknecht’s chief of staff, told the King County Council at the July 10 meeting that the sheriff doesn’t take the report’s findings lightly. “Sheriff Johanknecht welcomes oversight and embraces it,” she said. “We assure the council, our own employees and members of the public that we do take all complaints seriously.”
Rocca also defended the current department by arguing that the complaint misclassification documented in the report occurred under former Sheriff John Urquhart’s watch. “I wish I could explain why those were misclassified. I can’t,” she said. “It was a previous administration. I wasn’t working here at the time and [Johanknecht] wasn’t the sheriff.”
As evidence that the department is making progress on the issue, Rocca said that Johanknecht hired a new captain for the IIU on her first day in office in January and is working to move the IIU out of the physical Sheriff’s Office. The unit also no longer reports directly to the sheriff during investigations to avoid the county’s chief law enforcement officer from influencing the process before it is complete. (She added that the report’s “most critical finding” was that the the IIU is understaffed.)
King County Councilmember Joe McDermott asked the OLEO staff present at the council meeting if the numerous misclassifications could be an attempt to hide incidents of police misconduct from further scrutiny by both the IIU and OLEO (which is only allowed to review incidents that are actually investigated).
“Yes. I think it could,” Wats responded.
When pressed by King County Councilmember and Law and Justice Committee Chair Larry Gossett about whether the Sheriff’s Office concurs with the report’s recommendation that the complaint process be restructured, Rocca countered that a “total overhaul” would require collective bargaining between the police union and King County.