After nearly five years in his current position, King County Sheriff John Urquhart is running for re-election. To The Stranger, Urquhart has presented himself as a progressive reformer, someone who's interested in breaking down the "blue wall" of silence surrounding police misconduct. But last week, The Stranger received two videos of Sheriff Urquhart recently making the case for his reelection to Republicans, in which he used language and took positions we hadn't seen from this sheriff before.
On August 24 at the 45th District GOP's annual barbecue, Sheriff Urquhart introduced himself by telling attendees that he was the only person in the room to have put handcuffs on Kshama Sawant. (King County Sheriff's deputies arrested then-candidate Sawant as she protested an eviction of a South Park resident in 2013.)
At the August 24 gathering, Urquhart also said that he would call immigration officials to pick up an accused rapist, and that "if OJ Simpson was here illegally, I'd call ICE and get him deported." When asked what his feelings were on restorative justice, an approach to crime that focuses on harm reduction and community as solutions over incarceration, Urquhart said that he's not "a big guy about having circles and passing a feather around."
On Friday, the Stranger Election Control Board interviewed both Sheriff Urquhart and his opponent, Major Mitzi Johanknecht, using several of the same questions the candidates received at the other two forums. Johanknecht's answers were largely consistent, but Urquhart's differed significantly.
In an email and call to The Stranger after this article was published, Urquhart acknowledged that he used a different approach with different audiences. "That's necessary to promote the progressive ideas that I believe in," he said by phone. If I go in there talking like some far-out liberal to the Republicans, they're going to reject me out of hand. But if I can get them to look at me like I have some reasonable ideas that they can consider, I have a much better chance at advancing the agenda that the people at The Stranger care about."
We are reposting excerpts of our interview below next to transcripts of the video of candidates at the GOP events. We are also posting at the bottom of this page Urquhart's explanation of discrepancies in his answers.
• Safe Injection Sites
At a September 12 community forum in Ballard, Urquhart was asked about his position on safe injection sites and he said he thought they were a "horrible idea" but one that would save lives.
On September 29, we asked Urquhart if he thought safe injection sites were a good idea (1:45 in the audio below). "Yes," Urquhart answered.
Not only do I think they're a good idea in the right spot... not only do I think they're a good idea, the Seattle Times, the mayor of Seattle, the prosecutor of King County, the AMA... I mean, there's a laundry list of organizations, Seattle/King County Public Health, that think they're a good idea. And for a police officer, for a police officer to go up against all those people, all those studies, to me, just strikes at the very heart of the problem with policing, not only today, but going back a long, long time. And that attitude is, we're the cops, you're not, don't tell us how to do our job. And that is a terrible, terrible attitude. We have to listen to society. And what society, the smart society, is saying today is we need safe injection sites to keep people from dying.
• Calling immigration officials on arrestees
At the August 24 GOP barbecue, Urquhart challenged a definition of "sanctuary cities" before saying that nothing stops him or his deputies from calling immigration officials on arrestees.
My deputies, there's nothing that keeps them from calling ICE and saying "So-and-so is down the street. He's an illegal alien. He's a rapist, he's a murderer, he's a cartel member, and go pick him up." I've done that, and my deputies can do that today. I was just on Kirby's radio show here and John Carlson asked, "What about this rapist in Burien?" A very very vile rape and he was here illegally. Suppose the jail, they're going to let him out of jail. He said, do you think, sheriff, do you think the jail should call ICE and tell them that he's about to be released and could be deported. I said, "John, I will call them myself. I will call them myself for ICE to go pick them up." If OJ Simpson was here illegally I'd call ICE and get him deported.
On September 29, we asked in what circumstances Urquhart might call immigration officials on someone he arrested. "Never," Urquhart said.
When we asked Urquhart if he ever called Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on someone that his department arrested (listen to the next clip), he said that he had, as a narcotics officer "back in the day", called the Immigration and Naturalization Service (an agency that preexisted ICE).
• Calling someone an "illegal alien"
On August 24, Urquhart used an example of his deputies calling ICE and tipping them off to an "illegal alien." When we asked him on September 29 if a human being could ever be "illegal," Urquhart said, "No. A person can be undocumented, but not illegal."
Personally I think it's morally wrong to consider somebody illegal. A human being cannot be illegal. They can break the law, they can be arrested, they can be convicted, they can be a convicted felon, or a convicted misdemeanor, but they can't be illegal. And that, you know, there's a whole lexicon we've used over the years that has dehumanized people. And illegal, since we're talking about immigration, that's one of the biggest ones. Junkie is another one. Hooker is another one. These are terms that we just don't use anymore because they're dehumanizing. And we shouldn't use them now, and we shouldn't have used them then. And boy, I better not catch any of my people using those words.
• Restorative Justice
On August 24, Urquhart responded to a question on his feelings about restorative justice, and whether he advocates for it. He said:
No. Every month I run down to the police academy and I swear in my new recruits. Every single month. Somewhere between two and five or six. And I've got kind of a talk that I give them. And here's the talk, here's what I tell them every single time. I tell them I don't care if you daisy chain people together and take them to jail if that's where they need to go, that's what I expect you to do. The thing about being a police officer is you, you, society, gives us some very specific responsibilities and authority. We have the responsibility, the authority, to take someone's freedom away, to kick them out of their house, to take their life. And we should use that when we have to, and only when we have to. I don't believe, [unintelligible], I'm not a big guy about having circles and passing a feather around, that's just not who I am, okay?
When we asked Urquhart what he made of restorative justice on September 29, he said:
Well I'm for it, certainly. A criminal history, a criminal background can destroy your life. Luckily we've changed it so you can vote again and 'ban the box', great idea, fantastic idea, I'm glad they did that.
Steven Hsieh contributed reporting.
Urquhart stands by his statement to SECB that safe injection sites are “a good idea,” in contrast to Johanknecht, who opposes them. He also says he plans to speak out against an initiative proposing to prohibit safe injection sites in King County and that Patricia Sully, a public defender, approved of his comments (Sully confirmed this and said Urquhart has "consistently come to the right conclusion” on safe injection sites). He says he described them the way he did to win over conservatives and combat NIMBYism.
I know that their main concern is that a safe injection site will be established right in their neighborhood and their kids are going to have to walk past it when they go to school. If that fear persists, then those parents will never support the concept. So I explain my position as a past soldier in the War on Drugs. I tell people that I share their shock about the concept of safe injection sites because of my experience as a narcotics detective.
Urquhart said his statement about nothing keeping officers from calling ICE refers to federal law. US Code 1373 blocks local governments from prohibiting communication between police officers and ICE. He said he has ordered deputies not to arrest anyone just because they have an ICE warrant.
When I tell groups, and they're usually conservative groups, that nothing keeps a deputy from calling ICE and saying, "So-and-so is down the street," this is to drive home the fact that this option lawfully exists, which usually helps to tamp down their opposition. But what's also in that message is the vast majority of police officers never call ICE because they know that it has a detrimental impact on relations with the community we serve. It's counterproductive, and police officers know it.
Urquhart said he stands by his statement that “illegal alien” is a dehumanizing term:
The context of the conversation was that I was reiterating what an arresting officer might say or do. I do my best not to adopt the language of the opposition and understand I should have been more careful in this context.
Regarding statements in which he said he’d personally call ICE on someone, including an alleged rapist in Burien and a hypothetical undocumented OJ Simpson, Urquhart said he was speaking as if he were a deputy, not the sheriff (In the video, he quotes a radio segment in which he says, “I’d call them myself.")
Before I spoke, someone came up to me and asked me about the Burien rape. I've read about it, and discussed it with very many people. It was a vicious, vicious attack. I surmised yes, if I were still on patrol and the arresting deputy of that suspect, and I learned that he was going to be let free, then as the arresting deputy having dealt with the victim, I probably could not resist contacting ICE.
On his answer to questions about restorative justice, Urquhart said his comment at the 45th GOP barbecue referred specifically to "peace circles" and was not inconsistent with the answer he gave us. (The person who questioned him at the GOP barbecue did ask if he advocated for "restorative justice instead of putting criminals in jail.")