Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht (left) stands with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and SPD Chief Carmen Best in July of this year.
Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht (left) stands with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and SPD Chief Carmen Best in July of this year. Lester Black

The King County Sheriff’s Office (KSCO) has blocked its independent oversight agency from accessing the county’s database of misconduct complaints.

Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht’s chief of staff, Liz Rocca, confirmed that the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) has been blocked from accessing the database since Oct. 5. Rocca said that OLEO’s director and staff was blocked from accessing the database after the sheriff’s office discovered they didn’t have the appropriate background checks and fingerprint data.

“There was a very high level meeting that Friday night with executive staff members where we had to decide what to do,” Rocca said.

Rocca said the sheriff’s office decided they needed to block OLEO’s Director Deborah Jacobs and all of her employees from accessing the database, which is called IAPro. The database contains the misconduct allegations made against KCSO deputies and the subsequent investigations. Those investigations often contain sensitive and confidential information. Rocca said KCSO was not legally allowed to provide OLEO with temporary access while they received their required background checks.

“I think the case you have to understand is we do not have a choice. Those are the rules, it is federal law,” Rocca said. “No one is trying to block OLEO from doing their work and it is dead wrong to report anything other than that.”

Jacobs told me that she has filled out all of the required documents and is now awaiting clearance.

“In the meantime, OLEO is unable to review internal investigations to assess whether they were thorough and objective,” Jacobs said in an e-mail.

Jacobs' office has used the database to write a series of reports that have been critical of KCSO. In September, OLEO published a report that found that KCSO failed to investigate some misconduct complaints and produced incomplete investigations in half of the cases reviewed by OLEO.

Rocca, who worked for decades in local broadcast news before taking a job making $153,803 as Johanknecht’s chief of staff, according to Seattle Met, said the sheriff's decision had nothing to do with the critical reports.

“This is not what you think it is. This is nothing that we have done to Deborah in retaliation for any critical reports that she has written or has had assembled,” Rocca said. “What they want you to believe is we have pulled down the shade and we are going nutso behind the scenes trying to hide things, that’s not true.”

Rocca said Jacobs’ insufficient background check data was discovered after a new employee was hired by OLEO. When KCSO required the full background check for the new employee Jacobs objected, thinking that the new hire already qualified for access. When the KCSO then reviewed all of OLEO’s employees they found that none of them had the required documentation, according to Rocca.

“If she had not been pushing back on her new employee being fingerprinted and having a background check it would have not raised our ‘well wait a minute.’ She was claiming that everything had already been done but that was not factual,” Rocca said.

Rocca, referencing recent articles I have written about the KCSO investigation of the Tommy Le police shooting, said the real story was that Jacobs was resisting background checks.

“I think that it’s problematic that you have an OLEO director who won’t do what the law requires,” Rocca said. “Maybe what you should ask the director is why she doesn’t want to have a background check? I know you have a very strong point of view about law enforcement, and it’s not a positive one, but have you thought about turning this on its head? Why OLEO, why her predecessors had background checks and she didn’t? And why she is fighting that?”

Jacobs told me she has not fought having her background checked.

“No one in my office is reluctant to have our backgrounds checked. When we received word that our access to IAPro was being suspended, I did nothing to 'fight' the background check. I asked for more information to understand the CJIS requirements and how the disconnect between then and now had occurred, and why it was essential to suspend our access,” Jacobs said in an e-mail.

Jacobs said her pre-employment background check had been completed by the Seattle Police Department not the KCSO, and she was interested in having these second background checks also run through an outside agency to make sure there is a separation between the independent oversight office and the police agency it’s overseeing.

“In addition, I had hoped to have time to make arrangements for an outside agency like the Washington State Patrol or Seattle Police Department to conduct the checks for us. But in the interest of expediency—and our urgent need to resume our work in the public’s interest—we decided to reprocess our current employees through KCSO, with the requested addition of fingerprinting. I submitted all required information to KCSO last week. Our top priority is to resume our work.” Jacobs said in an e-mail.

Rocca was not able to provide an estimate as to when OLEO would be given access to the database.

“They can’t see it right now but nothing is going to fall through the cracks, it’s going to be there waiting for them and get them caught up,” Rocca said.