Sheriff Fires Cop Who Threatened to Arrest Me for Taking His Photo
King County Sheriff John Urquhart Cited Unconstitutional Behavior, Dishonesty During an Internal Review, and a History of Misconduct
By last summer, Deputy Patrick "K.C." Saulet already had more misconduct complaints against him than any other officer in the King County Sheriff's Office. But Saulet's actions on a downtown street corner in late July now appear to be the final, self-inflicted blow in his 27-year career. Saulet abused his authority by threatening to arrest me for photographing several officers, which is a legal activity, and then lied about it to investigators, says King County sheriff John Urquhart. The sheriff's punishment: termination.
"You have a constitutional right to photograph the police," Sheriff Urquhart asserted in a phone interview. Threatening to arrest a citizen for legally taking photos of cops while on public property, he added, "is a constitutional violation, as far as I am concerned."
The incident occurred on a Tuesday evening in the International District. The short version: Several cops had been surrounding a man sitting on a planter box. I hopped off my bicycle and started taking photos from a distance when Saulet rushed over to say I'd be arrested if I didn't leave. He claimed, wrongly, that I was standing on private property. Even though his statement didn't sound right to me—I was standing in a Metro transit plaza—I backed up until I stood unambiguously on the City of Seattle's sidewalk. But Saulet insisted that was illegal, too, and that I would be arrested unless I left the block. I filed a complaint with King County against Saulet and another complaint with the Seattle Police Department against a nearby SPD officer (who threatened to come into The Stranger's offices and harass me at work for asking questions).
Both departments have been plagued with misconduct controversies. The US Department of Justice found in 2012 that the SPD routinely used excessive force and showed troubling practices with racial minorities; a King County audit of the sheriff's office that same year found misconduct complaints were being brushed aside. Both departments assumed new leadership last year. But with officers still acting like these two, was reform actually happening on the streets, or just on paper? In a sense, my complaints were small tests of how such matters are being handled now, after organizational shake-ups.
After a six-month investigation, Sheriff Urquhart issued a disciplinary letter to Saulet. One paragraph of the sheriff's letter summarized the results:
Suffice it to say, in my judgment, the evidence shows that (i) you abused your authority in your dealings with Mr. Holden on July 30, and (ii) thereafter, rather than be accountable, you attempted to recast events in a light more favorable to you. Stated broadly, for example, you claim you interacted with Mr. Holden in a civil, professional manner that was nothing more than "social contact"; you did little more than tell him for his benefit that he couldn't ride on Metro property because doing so is a $66 infraction; [you claim that two other deputies] Shook and Mikulcik told him the same thing; and you once calmly pointed him in a direction you were suggesting he leave. But the evidence is that you approached Mr. Holden because you took exception with him lawfully exercising his right to take photographs of you and your colleagues while lawfully standing on public property; you were agitated and confrontational; you essentially "squared off" with him; you expressly and/or implicitly threatened to arrest him if he did not leave immediately in the specific direction you pointed, not once but five times (misidentifying public property as private property in the process); and Shook and Mikulcik deny the statement you attribute to them.
"Your ill-advised actions also play to some of the most basic fears among some citizens," Urquhart's discipline letter continues, "which is that a police officer may indiscriminately exercise his or her power in violation of their rights." He explains citizens fear that "in the event of a complaint, the officer will just deny the allegations and 'circle the wagons' with his or her fellow officers with the expectation they will take care of their own. In a matter of minutes, your actions violated the trust that we, as a department, spend years trying to build and maintain." The sheriff upheld seven counts of misconduct against Saulet in this matter alone, including dishonesty, abuse of authority, and violating rules regarding photography of police officers.
Saulet and his union fought the decision, arguing that the investigation was a "witch hunt," that Saulet did nothing wrong, and that "none of the witness statements are consistent."
"This is an overstatement," Urquhart responds in his discipline letter to Saulet. "There are some inconsistencies to be sure, but no more or less than is typical of most police investigations: The most comprehensive and fundamental conflict was between Mr. Holden's statement and yours, and the other statements provided substantially more support for him than you on key points." The union made the "witch hunt" claim based on the observation that there was a particularly large investigation file; Urquhart says the file's size "reflects the thoroughness of the investigation. If the department in general, or I or the investigator in particular, were 'hunting' for a reason to take action against you, we would not have made such a substantial effort to collect and carefully review all relevant circumstances, including any and all that might have wholly or partly exculpated you or otherwise mitigate the circumstances."
Saulet and his union may try to appeal to an arbiter, but, as of press time, Urquhart says they have not. The union has successfully fought disciplining Saulet before. In his history with the King County Sheriff's Office, there have been approximately 120 allegations against him and 21 cases of sustained misconduct. The sheriff's letter says Saulet underwent three performance-improvement plans, two training sessions, two multi-visit sessions with a social psychologist, coaching sessions with supervisors, and 80 hours of time off without pay. Saulet was demoted from sergeant to deputy for another incident last August, part of what the sheriff called Saulet's "larger pattern" of misconduct.
Urquhart told me that I was "treated no differently than other people" who file complaints. He says I wasn't given special treatment because I'm a journalist. Urquhart has fired two other deputies accused of misconduct within the last year.
I take no pleasure in seeing Saulet fired, although it is nice to see that Urquhart takes complaints seriously—more seriously than SPD does, in my experience. The Seattle officer was punished with a one-day unpaid suspension. "Frankly, the effect of trust by the public was equally damaged by both officers in your encounter last summer. Why is the punishment of magnitudes difference?" says James Egan, a lawyer who has represented clients in misconduct cases against both the city and county. It may be because Officer Marion, the SPD officer, didn't have Saulet's documented history of misconduct. But there are other differences between the two agencies. Unlike the county, the SPD has no appeal process. Pierce Murphy, who runs SPD's discipline division, said last month that the only recourse for a complainant unhappy with a discipline decision is to sue the city in court. It also took three weeks after suspending Officer Marion for the SPD to provide records from their investigation, while King County delivered its Saulet investigation record to me the day after discipline was announced.
These complaints that I filed were not about me. Growing up in Seattle, I believe that certain cops regularly submit civilians (particularly racial minorities) to abusive treatment, much more abusive than what I faced trying to take photos of a couple of cops. Often, citizens who've been mistreated don't complain, and when they do, the record shows, bad cops are often wholly or partially exonerated, even when they're guilty. Now more than ever, with both police forces undergoing reform, citizens should complain if they encounter hostile, unconstitutional, or violent policing. Sheriff Urquhart has been in office only a little over a year, and it's refreshing to see him weeding out officers who break the rules. Most cops are not problem cops. Most work hard and keep us safe. Abusive cops ruin those good cops' reputations.
Urquhart took his discipline of this particular deputy a step further: He reported Saulet to the state's Criminal Justice Training Commission for acts of "dishonesty," he says. That gives officials the option of discrediting Saulet as an officer in Washington State.