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Most complaints about King County deputies didn't result in any discipline, report shows

Screenshot of interaction between motorcyclist, Alex Randall, and King County Sheriff Detective Richard Rowe, August 16, 2017.
Screenshot from YouTube video by Alex Randall
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A screenshot from a YouTube video showing King County detective Richard Rowe pulling a gun on a motorcyclist during a traffic stop. He was suspended for five days.

Only a third of complaints about King County Sheriff's deputies in 2016 ever stood a chance of being taken seriously, according to a report released today.

The report was released through King County's Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, which hired an independent police systems expert, Connecticut lawyer Eric Daigle, to review the complaints. 

Daigle found that members of the public lodged nearly 700 complaints against King County officers in 2016. But because of the way complaints are handled by the Sheriff’s Office, only 33 percent of them actually stood any chance of resulting in discipline.

As for the other 467 complaints? They were stamped “not really about misconduct” or “minor misconduct handled by the supervisor.” Nevertheless, analysis of the discarded complaints showed serious allegations among them, including sexual assault and violation of authority.

But even when officer misconduct was addressed by a supervisor, the report found most investigations were incomplete. Only a about a third of the cases went through a formal investigation process. 

King County's Office of Law Enforcement Oversight is supposed to monitor the handling of complaints. But according to the report, the oversight office never learned about the hundreds of complaints that did not result in a formal investigation. 

“A well-devised shell game can occur wherein the Sheriff’s office limits the number of type of complaints that are forwarded to (the oversight office) resulting in a number of potential misconduct complaints that are not reviewed,” Daigle wrote.

As a result, Daigle's report recommended getting rid of the current system for reviewing complaints and replacing it with something else. 

A spokesman for King County Sheriff  Mitzi Johanknecht told King County Council's Law and Justice committee that complaint investigators are understaffed, which helps explain some of the numbers. Johanknecht's chief of staff, Liz Rocca, said the city of Oakland, California has 13 investigators while King County has four. The police departments are of similar size.

Rocca also said the sheriff was taking steps to improve complaint investigators' independence, such as moving their workplace out of the Sheriff's office.