What is the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight and why are we voting on it?

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Sheriff John Urquhart

For all the attention heaped on the Seattle Police Department and its settlement agreement with the Department of Justice, it's another law enforcement body that local voters are being asked to weigh in on: the King County Sheriff’s Office. The measure on the November general election ballots (which should have already arrived in homes across King County) asks voters to approve or reject the creation of an Office of Law Enforcement Oversight.

Even the most well-informed voter would be forgiven for being confused, however, because the county Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) technically already exists. So what, exactly, are we deciding with King County Charter Amendment 1?

Mere months after Sue Rahr took the helm of the King County Sheriff’s Office in 2005, the old Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper began its Conduct Unbecoming series, hammering the office for overlooking questionable and perhaps illegal behavior on the part of its officers. The series spurred two main actions by officials: One, Rahr created an internal panel to vet the systems inside the Sheriff’s office designed to examine misconduct. Two, the King County Council approved the creation of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight.

Because OLEO directly impacted the day-to-day operations within the Sheriff’s office, the King County Police Officers Guild filed an unfair labor practice claim against the body. As result, OLEO did not get a director until 2011 and, by the time it did, the legal battle had led to stripping the office of much of its teeth.

A recent audit determined it was weak in its actual oversight abilities. “The system of civilian oversight currently in place in King County has limited authority compared to other oversight functions across the United States,” reads the auditor’s report. “In addition, there are significant barriers in place that undermine OLEO’s independence and access to information—elements that are critical to its success.”

Sitting King County Sheriff John Urquhart is lauded as being a tough critic of his own department, unafraid to discipline and fire officers for misconduct. As a result, perhaps, the weak oversight body has not raised a lot of red flags in the public.

However, King County Councilmembers Larry Gossett and Larry Phillips both argue that relying on a tough sheriff is not adequate for the long run and that oversight ought to be more systemic. It is for that reason the two rolled out the proposed amendment to the King County charter, codifying OLEO and its ability to initiate investigations of officers' conduct, while also allowing its director unrestricted access to the sheriff's department and officers' records. The office could issue recommendations for discipline and publicize its findings from investigations.

Fellow King County Councilmember Kathy Lambert says she believes the amendment will pass. “And it breaks my heart,” she says. Lambert emphasizes that she is in favor of the idea of the amendment, but is worried that it comes at a bad time. “We are right in the middle of flux,” she says. “It’s never good to make decisions during change.”

For Lambert, the current OLEO is on the cusp of pulling out of its dark days. The office’s first and only director, Charles Gaither, left last year amid controversy and was, by most accounts, not very successful in his three years at the helm. So while she does not dispute that OLEO has been ineffective, she faults the lawsuits with the guild and Gaither’s rocky tenure rather than the office itself. Lambert wants to put changes in the hands of the office’s future director and the civilian advisory board to the Sheriff’s Office.

If this amendment passes, its terms will need to be negotiated with the guild. Lambert is worried that going to the table with the guild will open up old wounds and restart the ugly battle.

Councilmember Phillips agrees with Lambert that Urquhart has done a good job maintaining discipline and high standards in the Sheriff’s Office. But he says the office’s issues are larger than either Urguhart or Gaither. "Gaither had to leave because of his own behavior," Phillips says. "This is not about the personnel. This is about institutional change.”

From Phillips’ perspective, OLEO is under the thumb of the police guild now, so worrying about the challenges of renegotiating terms — potentially better terms — with the union leadership doesn’t scare him. “If the public wants the Sheriff’s Office guild to be in charge, then they should leave it as it is.”

There are no guarantees that if the OLEO charter amendment is approved, as both Phillips and Lambert expect it will, it won’t again get weakened through negotiations with the guild. “I expect that the guild will try to undercut oversight,” he says, but adds. “The King County Council and executive will hold the line.”