INTERVIEW: John Urquhart Vows that he’ll ‘Do the Right Thing as the Sheriff’
by Jack Mayne
New King County Sheriff John Urquhart was elected last November by what he terms “a landslide” but he isn’t worried about facing voters all over again this November for a full four-year term.
“I am going to do the right thing as the sheriff – what is best for this department, what is best for the community,” Urquhart says. “I am not going to worry about getting reelected. I won with over 56 percent. There is a term for that in King County. Know what that is? It’s a landslide. I clearly had the confidence of the community.”
Urquhart is the first candidate to ever have won election over an incumbent King County sheriff, according to his chief of staff and former campaign manager, Chris Barringer. Urquhart’s final tally was 97,313 votes more than appointed interim Sheriff Steve Strachan.
The King County Sheriff’s Office is the second largest local police agency in the state and the largest sheriff’s office west of Minneapolis and north of San Francisco.
“Over a thousand employees and $160 million budget,” he says. “It is a big, big department.”
Even before the election, he promised he would bulk up his command staff with the hiring of a second in command, former Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick.
“It was a special election. I was sworn in on the 28th (of November) and Dec. 1 was Kirkpatrick’s first day on the job as chief deputy, my second in command.”
As the former 5-year Spokane chief, Kirkpatrick had led a 380-person staff, with an annual budget of $40 million. She was also a former chief in Federal Way.
Urquhart, on the other hand, retired in 2011 after 24 years in the King County department, but had not risen above the rank of sergeant, albeit serving in roles as executive assistants to two previous sheriffs, Dave Reichert and Sue Rahr. His name was well known to media representatives and the public because he was also the longtime public spokesman for the department.
Harassment charges resurface
Just two days later he was sworn in to fill out Rahr’s final year in office, Urquhart was served with a new lawsuit stemming from a case thought already settled. It concerned sexual harassment charges made originally during former Sheriff Sue Rahr’s administration.
A Seattle Times story last September said the original allegations came from three female officers against three sergeants.
“Three veteran detectives in the King County sheriff’s Special Assault Unit have filed up to $9 million in claims against the county,” the Times story said, “alleging they were victims of rampant acts of sexual harassment and verbal abuse under three sergeants over many years.
“Among those named in the claims is Dave Jutilla, who (then was) the chief deputy, second in command of the Sheriff’s Office.
“The detectives, Marylisa Priebe-Olson, Janette Luitgaarden and Belinda Ferguson, allege they were subjected to a host of acts, ranging from crude remarks about breasts and buttocks to ‘yelling, screaming and spitting.’”
The then-interim sheriff, Strachan, said he would take “appropriate action” and brought in a former deputy King County prosecutor and now a partner in a local law firm, Patty A. Eakes, to investigate the case.
Urquhart said, “She gave her report to (Strachan) based on the allegations that were made then,” Urquhart said, and one of those challenged “was transferred out of the unit in October of 2012 by my predecessor.”
The new complaint “was a whole new stack of allegations (against) these same three detectives that we had not heard before for some reason and they implicated the second sergeant that had not been transferred.”
“I immediately transferred him to a different assignment so he is not supervising these detectives any longer” and ordered a full internal investigation. He said in an interview that he was also is bringing Eakes back for a second outside investigation.
Now the women’s’ attorney has filed a Superior Court lawsuit in the matter.
Urquhart says such events are a question of accountability, a charge he made against Strachan during the campaign.
“We are a police department, we have a thousand employees,” Urquhart says. “We use force on if not a daily basis, on a weekly basis and allegations are made, things happen and things go wrong. Or things go right and we still have to look into them. The litmus test is how we, in leadership, starting with me, how we react to these incidents.
“As soon as I heard these allegations against this second sergeant, I transferred him.”
Urquhart doesn’t think such a transfer will hurt the sergeant later if he is cleared of the issue.
“No, I don’t think it will at all. I think people look to their bosses, look to their leaders to hold other people accountable.”
Urquhart says that is what wasn’t happening before, according to a recent critical departmental audit.
He says he will hold officers accountable while he is sheriff.
Constant staff cuts
The biggest issue Urquhart said he is facing is the cuts of about 190 people over the past five or so years.
“That has got to stop. We cannot continue to take those kinds of cuts. We’ve been cut to the bone and now they are cutting the bone. It is going to be my job, first of all to run the sheriff’s office in a fiscally prudent manner so that I have credibility when I go to the County Council and go to the county executive and saw we need more money, we need more resources out there.
“We need to have a proper number of deputies working in unincorporated King County. Unincorporated King County is 253,000 people. If it were a city, it would be the second or third largest city in the state. We have to have decent patrol response and follow up detectives to do that.”
The previous sheriff promoted the zone plan, which would have put all of the disparate unincorporated areas of the county into one zone.
“It doesn’t work,” Urquhart said. “It doesn’t work and I am in the process of fixing it.
“Tentatively, I am going to go back to the original precinct plan, where we had three precincts – north precinct, southeast precinct and southwest precinct and each one run by a major.
“It doesn’t change Burien or SeaTac, it is unincorporated King County,” he said.
The unincorporated area in the Southeast part of the county is fairly small, including White Center (or Area Y as some call it), Skyway and Vashon Island so it could be commanded by a captain, he says.
The other area is Southeast King County, huge unincorporated areas east of the Eastside incorporated cities.
“We are going to go back to a North precinct which is above I-90 and below will be the Southeast Precinct, each run by a major.
“Now all of that is supervised by one major – about 300 people report to him. That is ridiculous and that is going to change.”
Not facing Seattle problems
Urquhart says he does not think there are any more cases of internal misbehavior on the horizon. He does not see a future where the U.S. Justice Department will allege institutional racism as has happened with the City of Seattle.
“In the sheriff’s office situation, it is a question more of the processes,” he says. “We haven’t been accused of systematic racism, systematic bad use of force or anything along those lines. Ours is do we have the right processes in place so that when the community looks in from the outside, they are confident that we are doing the right thing – that we hold our officers accountable and that we can prove that we hold our officers accountable because of the processes we have … and then that we follow our processes.
“If you remember my criticism of my predecessor, one of them, was that there were four officer involved shootings and we were required to have a shooting review board within 30 days and they weren’t doing it. That doesn’t breed confidence in the community that we take those things that are very, very important seriously. Just a simple thing of following the processes that are already in place, is going to reassure the public.”
He says a shooting by an officer is investigated by the major crimes unit, homicide investigators, and that a detective from internal investigation is also involved to look for any departmental policy violations. The officer is also represented by the King County Police Officer’s Guild. Once the department is sure what happened, they order the deputy to make a statement on what happened. When the department is all finished with the investigation, the final report is sent to the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s office for review and a decision on whether further court action is warranted. At the same time, Urquhart says the department takes its policy review to a shooting review board, which has to be held within 30 days of an inquest or the completion of an investigation.
A shooting review board is required, he says, for all shootings, even accidental discharges of weapons. The only time it is not required is if an animal is euthanized.
Urquhart says the review boards were not held within the deadline time under Strachan.