King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht responded defiantly Tuesday morning to a scathing new report that found her office failed to follow routine procedures while investigating deadly uses of police force.
In testimony before the King County Council’s Law and Justice Committee, Johanknecht claimed the report contains inaccuracies and that agreements with police unions prevent her from moving more quickly on policing reforms.
According to Johanknecht, the report, commissioned by the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), is incorrect when it claims the sheriff’s office has ignored its own internal policy recommendations.
“I want to be very clear that the allegation in the report that reforms were left to die on the vine is simply not true,” Johanknecht said. “We do not wait until a conclusion of active litigation to make necessary changes to policies, practices, and procedures.”
Johanknecht’s claims did not appear to convince the county council, or the members of the general public who filled the council chambers to capacity and gave over an hour of impassioned public testimony.
Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, chair of the Law and Justice Committee, said Tuesday that he plans to introduce legislation at the next meeting that will ask Johanknecht to formally respond to all of the 43 recommendations made in OLEO’s report.
“I feel the magnitude of the report’s findings requires a thorough public response to each of the report’s recommendations,” Zahilay said. “I have drafted legislation requesting a detailed response from the sheriff’s office to each of the recommendations.”
The OLEO report examined the death of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens—a 17-year-old boy shot in the back of the head during a hastily arranged sting operation gone wrong in January of 2017—in order to better understand how the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) responds to deadly uses of police force.
What OLEO found was startling: KCSO waited weeks before interviewing the three officers who fired their weapons, failed entirely to interview officers who supervised the undercover operation, and failed to analyze whether the use of deadly force was needed.
Katrina Johnson, the cousin of Charleena Lyles, whose killing in 2017 by Seattle Police Department made national headlines, said Tuesday that the Dunlap-Gittens killing was shocking even compared to the death of Lyles, who was killed in her own apartment in front of her own children.
“The retaliatory, calculated, rogue mission that led to the murder of Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens is one of the most egregious cases of state-sponsored killing that I know, even more so than the death of my cousin Charleena Lyles,” Johnson said. “The least we can do is to adopt the OLEO recommendations.”
A community letter, signed by 15 groups including ACLU Washington and the Public Defender Association, was sent to Johanknecht on Monday. It called on her to make major changes to KCSO policy, including creating a more robust standard for the use of deadly force and requiring officers to provide in-person interviews within hours of killing someone.
Johanknecht said Tuesday that current KCSO policy requires a 48-hour waiting period before receiving a written statement from the officers involved in a killing. Following Dunlap-Gittens' death, the involved officers provided statements three and four days after the killing and were not interviewed until weeks later.
Johanknecht repeatedly claimed Tuesday that she was advancing reforms at the department and frequently cited her support of Initiative 940, a successful initiative that reformed state law concerning uses of deadly police force, as proof that she can be trusted to reform the department.
“If I’m not a person who steps up for reform then I don’t know what else my actions have described,” Johanknecht said. “I’ve stood up for wholesale changes in state law.”
Leslie Cushman, the citizen sponsor of I-940, testified Tuesday that Johanknecht had more work to do in the department.
“We truly appreciated Sheriff Johanknecht’s support, but with that support came the continuing commitment to transparency and preservation of life,” Cusham said. “We want her to step up.”
Johanknecht left Tuesday’s hearing after her testimony, refusing to stay to hear public comment or a planned response from OLEO Director Deborah Jacobs.
Johanknecht had blocked OLEO from accessing documents or conducting interviews for their report (it’s not the first time Johanknecht has blocked OLEO from conducting oversight) because, according to her, a pending lawsuit against the county prevented her from cooperating.
That’s created a system in which the county’s official police watchdog, OLEO, and the county council itself are not able to investigate the county’s cops in cases where the department claims lawsuits prevent them from cooperating.
During a very brief interview, conducted partially in an elevator as the sheriff was making her hasty exit from the chambers, Johanknecht told The Stranger that it was an “extreme misrepresentation” to characterize her as not cooperating with OLEO.
“What I just spoke to for over a half hour was in fact, we have worked with OLEO since we came into office,” Johanknecht said. “We have worked on this policy. As a matter of fact, some of the policies that [the director of OLEO] represented in that report as having not been done, have, in fact, been agreed to."
Johanknecht did not have a response when The Stranger pointed out that OLEO’s report lacked information precisely because her office wouldn’t cooperate.
Deborah Jacobs, OLEO’s director, said following Tuesday’s meeting that KCSO has transparency problems.
“I think we clearly have accountability and transparency issues,” Jacobs said. “I think it would be really important when the sheriff is adopting policies like this that both the public defender and prosecuting attorney's office are part of that dialogue.”
James Bible, a prominent local civil rights attorney who is representing the father of the Dunlap-Gittens family in a lawsuit against the county, said it was disturbing that the sheriff would not stay for the full hearing.
“I understand the sheriff had her next thing to go to and didn’t have time to listen to the father and the mother, but that’s exactly the problem,” Bible said. “It tells us all how little she cares.”
Johanknecht declined to say why she had to leave, saying only that she had “things to do.”
Zahilay said the sheriff should have stayed, if possible.
“I just don’t know what other meeting she had, [but] I think it was important to stay and hear from the public, especially from the parents,” Zahilay said following the hearing. “I think we have a powerful opportunity to seize this momentum and create meaningful reforms, even if it is on the back of tragedy.”
The council plans to discuss Zahilay’s proposed legislation on March 10.