County Watchdog recommends changes to handling of citizen complaints about police

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht
King County Police
With over 1,000 employees, the King County Sheriff's Office (KCSO) serves the law enforcement needs of over half a million people in unincorporated areas and twelve contract cities.

The KCSO also provides police departments for the Muckleshoot Tribe, Metro Transit, and the King County International Airport.

Both Shoreline and Kenmore contract their police departments from the King County Sheriff's Office. Lake Forest Park has its own police department.

The King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) has released a report, "Internal Investigations Complaint Classification Review of the King County Sheriff’s Office," at a briefing of the Metropolitan King County Council’s Law and Justice Committee.

The report identifies concerns with the King County Sheriff’s Office’s internal investigations system and recommends related improvements to policy and practice.

“We undertook this review after noticing inconsistent handling of complaints from the public, and growing concern that serious complaints were not properly addressed,” said OLEO Director Deborah Jacobs. 
“Although we have already seen some improvements under the new leadership of Sheriff Johanknecht, we’re proposing significant changes that can bring the Sheriff’s Office closer to the fair and transparent treatment of complaints that the public expects.”

OLEO engaged the Daigle Law Group, a national expert on law enforcement agency operations and risk management, to analyze how the Sheriff’s Office determines which misconduct complaints it will investigate. Presently, the Sheriff’s Office classifies incoming complaints into three categories:
  1. Non-investigatory Matter - even if the facts are true, the allegation does not amount to a policy violation.
  2. Supervisor Action Log – include allegations of minor policy violations that are sent to the employee’s supervisor to address.
  3. Inquiries – allegations involving misconduct that are formally investigated.

The Daigle Law Group conducted a review of 280 complaints received in 2016 and how the classifications were handled. Key findings from this review were:
  • Of the files reviewed, half of the complaints classified as “non-investigatory matters” were classified incorrectly, or contained insufficient justification for that classification.
  • Some of the complaints that were classified incorrectly involved allegations about excessive force, illegal search and seizure, discourtesy, and biased-based policing.
  • There was a lack of documentation/explanation for how the reviewer made the initial complaint classification.
  • There was a lack of standardization for investigation reports of all complaints, regardless of how the complaint is classified.

The report recommends key changes to improve consistency, accuracy and fairness in Sheriff’s Office internal investigations, including that it should:
  • Restructure the entire classification system by classifying complaints based on how the complainant perceived the situation, rather than after preliminary investigation, which will keep the public’s point of view as the benchmark as information is gathered.
  • Broaden the scope of investigative reports to require investigators to include additional findings such as: whether the officer complied with policy and training and if different tactics should or could have been used.
  • Improve communication with complainants by providing additional notifications regarding case status, which is an essential step in establishing trust.
  • Increase staff size of the Internal Investigations Unit (IIU) and designate a specific force investigator with specialized training.

These changes would ensure that all complaints and allegations are documented as part of the discipline system, that similar allegations against different personnel are processed uniformly, and that there is greater consistency between an IIU and front-line supervisor investigation. This alignment, coupled with better data, will allow for identification of any gaps in policy or training.

Since Sheriff Johanknecht took office and appointed a new IIU Captain, Rodney Chinnick, OLEO has seen significant improvements in internal investigations, including correcting mis-classifications, which are addressed in the report released today. OLEO hopes that the Sheriff’s Office will similarly embrace the recommendations in this report that, if also implemented, will further improve KCSO’s own internal accountability structure to promote greater transparency, consistency and fairness to both the public and its employees.

OLEO is an independent office established by the County Council that represents the interests of the public in its efforts to hold the Sheriff’s Office accountable for providing fair and just police services. It conducts systemic reviews of the Sheriff’s Office’s policies, practices and trainings, and makes policy recommendations to the Sheriff’s Office and the County Council for meaningful improvements.

You can read OLEO’s report online.


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