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King County Sheriff's Civilian Overseer "Disinvited" To Meetings

Courtesy King County Sheriff

The King County Sheriff’s Office directly serves over half a million people in King County. Like the Seattle Police Department, the Sheriff’s Office is reforming the way it handles the use of force. The changes come in the wake of a shooting last year.

Dustin Theoharis was shot 16 times by a King County deputy and a Department of Corrections officer in Auburn in February 2012. He survived the shooting and reached a settlement for $3 million with King County.

It’s an incident King County Sheriff John Urquhart inherited when he was elected in the fall of 2012. “During the mediation I went and I met with [Theoharis],” Urquhart said. “And I looked him right straight in the eye and I apologized that he had been shot.”

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A recent report to the King County Council by the Police Assessment Resource Center found “serious deficiencies” in the way the King County Sheriff’s Office handled the shooting. It said investigators failed to interview the officers involved for months. That could allow their accounts to become contaminated by other officers' versions and their memories to fade.

But Urquhart said the office was following the guidance of King County prosecutors who were looking at a possible criminal investigation. “We were getting pressure from — in fact we were told by our lawyers, which is the King County Prosecutors’ Office — do not interview these detectives,” he said.

Urquhart said he now believes he can conduct a review of the shooting and get officers' accounts of what happened without jeopardizing the prosecutors' investigation. And he's committed to making those changes.

But he also has to negotiate the change with the King County Police Officers Guild. Their contract has expired and they’re currently in mediation. The current bargaining agreement prohibits questioning an officer in the first 72 hours after a shooting.

“That’s an issue we are bargaining right now. I’m going to draw a line in the sand. I’m not going to compromise on that.  I want that 72-hours rule lifted,” said Urquhart.

Civilian Oversight Blocked From Investigation Review

The public wouldn’t know much about the serious deficiencies in the investigation if it weren’t for Charles Gaither. He heads King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, a relatively new body. He commissioned the outside investigation after seeing firsthand how the internal investigation was taking shape.

Gaither said he was invited to a debriefing shortly after the shooting. There, detectives said no weapons had been found in the room, but they did find a black flashlight. Gaither asked why they didn’t collect it as evidence and was told it was of “no evidentiary value.”

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“You want to find those things that support the deputy’s version of events and those things that cut against it," said Gaither. "Here I thought the flashlight would have done that, at least collecting it was necessary. It showed there might have been a reach for something.”

Gaither said the flashlight could potentially have supported the officers’ version of events, since they described Theoharis as “grabbing for something.” Gaither raised some other questions, too. But after that day his access to these meetings was terminated.

“Following that debriefing the union filed a claim for unfair labor practices against me and the sheriff," explained Gaither. "As a result of that I’m no longer allowed to participate in any shooting review board, lessons learned [review], or anything involving an officer-involved shooting.”

He said violating the officers' collective bargaining agreement could be grounds for his removal. Gaither said attending these meetings is critical because they get to the heart of why a deputy elects to use deadly force. While he’s encouraged by Urquhart’s pledge to launch an administrative review immediately after a shooting, he said he can’t know the county’s inner workings without better access.

Urquhart said he welcomes the civilian oversight provided by Gaither's office. And he’ll be making the case for the improvements he’s made at King County when he runs for reelection this fall. 

Year started with KUOW: 2005