New WA police accountability laws hardly affect sheriffs like Ed Troyer

A law making it easier to decertify problem officers won’t cause elected sheriffs to lose their jobs, as it would for other cops.

Ed Troyer speaks in suit jacket and tie with an American flag in the background

In this Feb. 18, 2020, file photo, then-Pierce County Sheriff's Department spokesman Detective Ed Troyer answers questions during a news conference in Tacoma. The Washington state attorney general on  Oct. 19, 2021, filed two misdemeanor criminal charges against Troyer, now the Pierce County sheriff, stemming from his confrontation with a Black newspaper carrier in January. Troyer has denied wrongdoing. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

Washington state legislators passed a dozen new laws this year aimed at holding police officers accountable.

But when it comes to elected sheriffs — like Pierce County’s Ed Troyer, who faces criminal charges after calling 911 on a Black newspaper carrier — the new laws don't have quite the same teeth.

Troyer, the sheriff of Washington state’s second most populous county, was charged last month with one count of false reporting and one count of making a false or misleading statement to a public servant. Both are misdemeanors.

Lying can be enough to get an officer’s certification revoked, a step that normally prevents someone from being able to work as a cop anywhere in the state. The Legislature recently beefed up the state’s decertification process, giving a state commission greater authority to decertify cops and increasing the number of offenses that can cause officers to lose their jobs.

For Troyer, however, even if he loses his policing license over his alleged falsehoods, that wouldn’t cause him to lose his job as Pierce County’s elected sheriff.

That's because nothing in state law or county statute requires elected sheriffs to maintain their status as sworn law enforcement officers, according to a Pierce County spokesperson and the state Criminal Justice Training Commission, which certifies police.

While state law requires elected sheriffs to have gone through police academy training at some point in their lives — either before they run or or within 12 months of taking office — sheriffs don’t need to remain certified police officers to continue working as sheriffs.

Sakara Remmu, lead strategist of the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance, said that appears to create an unacceptable loophole for elected sheriffs like Troyer. 

“Potentially, he is in a legal loophole right now that is preventing accountability or removing him from his position,” said Remmu, whose organization has asked Troyer to resign. 

The Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance has also filed civil rights complaints with the FBI and the Department of Justice over Troyer’s actions.

The charges against Troyer stem from a Jan. 27 early morning encounter during which Troyer repeatedly told a police dispatcher that a Black newspaper carrier had threatened to kill him. Troyer later recanted that statement, telling a Tacoma police officer that no such threat was made, according to charging documents and a police report.

Last month, Troyer released a statement calling the charges against him a “politically motivated anti-cop hit job.”  His attorney entered a plea of not guilty on his behalf Thursday.

Troyer's attorney, John Sheeran, told Crosscut he thinks it is highly unlikely that Troyer would be decertified over the Jan. 27 incident, which occurred when Troyer was off duty. Sheeran said Troyer has no plans to resign and will fight the charges to the end.

Sheeran, too, called the charges against the sheriff "politically motivated."

"There is no doubt the attorney general is looking to curry favor with the anti-police, defund-the-police political wing," Sheeran said Friday,

Derek Young, who chairs the Pierce County Council, said he is disappointed that Troyer “seems unrepentant” for his behavior, which he said endangered the life of the 24-year-old newspaper carrier, Sedrick Altheimer.

But as things stand, Young said, “In essence, the sheriff is accountable only to the people who elect him.” 

In response to Troyer’s 911 call, 14 police officers and sheriff's deputies showed up to confront Altheimer, according to charging documents filed by Attorney General Bob Ferguson. More were on the way before officers on the scene called them off.

In addition to initially saying that Altheimer had threatened to kill him, Troyer told the 911 dispatcher that Altheimer had "blocked" him in and was “pushing against” his car, according to a recording of the 911 call.

That set the stage for a tense police confrontation that easily could have resulted in Altheimer being shot and killed, said Remmu of the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance.

Altheimer wasn’t arrested that night, but was questioned and frisked by police. Police let him go after he told them he was out doing his job delivering newspapers, not trying to break into people’s houses, as Troyer had suggested during the 911 call. Altheimer has since filed a lawsuit over the incident.

When the Legislature passed several high-profile police accountability bills this year, key lawmakers said the revamped decertification process would be the main means of enforcing those new laws. That means cops who fail to report others’ misconduct, use newly banned police tactics such as chokeholds or violate new standards for uses of force are supposed to be held accountable through the decertification process, said state Sen. Manka Dhingra, D-Redmond, who worked on the legislation.

Dhingra noted there was a recent proposal in the Legislature to require all elected sheriffs to be certified law enforcement officers, or else undergo a specialized sheriff training course. The bill didn’t pass, but Dhingra thinks requiring sheriffs to be certified would be a good idea.

“I would love to see them be certified law enforcement officers, and absolutely hold them to the high standard we expect of all law enforcement officers — because they have a lot of power,” Dhingra said last week. 

Decertification would bar Troyer from some forms of police work, such as chasing down suspects or making traffic stops. But most sheriffs rarely go out on patrol, meaning decertification likely wouldn't have much practical effect on them. "It's an admin job — they are running the office and running the department,” Dhingra said.

If Troyer were convicted of a felony, that would automatically remove him from office under a state law that sets qualifications for public offices. But convictions for misdemeanors, like the crimes Troyer is charged with, don’t have the same effect — not unless they involve "malfeasance in office."

At this point, it’s not clear whether the charges filed against Troyer could fall into that category, wrote Brian Moran, a former U.S. attorney who conducted an independent investigation into Troyer’s conduct. That investigation, which was commissioned by the Pierce County Council, was released publicly last week

That means a voter-initiated recall petition is the most direct way of holding Troyer accountable, said James Bible, a civil rights attorney who is representing the family of Manuel Ellis, a Black man killed by Tacoma police last year.

“It is embarrassing that he represents law enforcement in any form at this stage in his career,” said Bible, who said Troyer also made many false statements about the Ellis case early on. Three Tacoma police officers now face criminal charges over Ellis’ death.

Because Troyer is serving the first year of a four-year term, voters won’t have the opportunity to replace him for three years, unless there is a successful recall campaign.

Young, the Pierce County Council chair, said he isn’t aware of an active petition right now to recall Troyer — but he knows some groups have been discussing the idea.

Because of the Jan. 27 incident, Troyer has been added to a list of police officers who have credibility issues, commonly known as a Brady list. The committee that decides who goes on that list met Friday and decided that Troyer should be added, said Adam Faber, a spokesperson for the Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. 

That means that if Troyer is called as a witness in a criminal case, the county will now notify defense attorneys of how he has been accused of lying — information that could cast doubt on his testimony.

About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is Crosscut’s staff reporter covering state politics and the Legislature.