REPORT: Sheriff’s Office handling of ‘Use of Force Complaints’ inconsistent

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The King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) on Tuesday (Aug. 28) released a new report – ‘Use of Force Complaint Processing in the King County Sheriff’s Office’ – at a briefing of the King County Council’s Law and Justice Committee.

The report, which reviews the way the Sheriff’s Office has handled complaints made by members of the public against officers for the unnecessary or excessive use of force, recommends improvements to procedure.

This comes on the heels of a report released Aug. 22 that claimed the June 2017 police shooting of 20-year old Tommy Le in Burien was ‘justified.’ Police said that Le was armed with a knife and “lunged” at them, but after shooting him twice in the back, only a pen was found (see video below of Le’s family lawyer discussing that report).

“OLEO’s reports provide the Sheriff’s Office with external expertise that can help guide Sheriff Johanknecht and her administration should they wish to take steps to improve the department’s policing systems,” said OLEO Director Deborah Jacobs. “The implementation of OLEO’s recommendations in this and our other recent reports would demonstrate commitment to a fair and responsive complaint system.”

OLEO engaged a team of experts in police practices to review files and assess the quality and consistency of complaint investigations. They include Kathryn Olson of Change Integration Consulting, Michael Gennaco and Robert Miller of the OIR Group, Robert Scales of Police Strategies LLC and Matthew Hickman of Seattle University’s Criminal Justice Department.

The review included looking at 82 closed cases from a two-year period to provide a picture of what types of interactions lead to use of force complaints and the steps taken by the Sheriff’s Office from that point forward. This comprehensive review of the use of force complaint investigative process resulted in three primary conclusions:

  • Sheriff’s Office personnel do not consistently follow through with policies and procedures. While some re-working of structure and policies is needed for the review of use of force, basic follow through on policies that are already in place would improve thoroughness and accountability.
  • Deficiencies exist in the use of interviews, including favoring written statements over in-person interviews. When interviews are conducted, they were often cursory or lacking in thoroughness. This may point to inadequate training for investigators.
  • The Sheriff’s Office as an organization would benefit from a cultural shift to become more responsive to impacted members of the public.

The report authors made 28 recommendations to improve consistency, thoroughness, and fairness in processes, including to:

  • Consider whether the threshold for reportable force should include control holds, a complaint of pain rather than injury, and drawing and pointing a firearm.
  • Designate a commander outside of the Internal Investigations Unit IIU responsible for reviewing use of force reports for quality assurance and for consideration as to whether any policy or training issues are identified that should be referred to IIU or elsewhere.
  • Require more detailed documentation of use of force in arrest reports, as well as enforcement by supervisors to comply with thoroughness by returning the document and requiring more information.
  • Require that the IIU conduct in-person interviews for use of force complaint investigations. If an interview wasn’t conducted, include in the file an explicit statement of the reasons why not.
  • Provide community education about uses of force and solicit public input regarding policy and practices for uses of force to ensure that they comport with community values.
  • Provide training on interview skills, the appropriate standard of proof to use in misconduct investigations, and how to make credibility determinations when necessary.

As with its other recent reports, OLEO hopes that the Sheriff’s Office will embrace the expert findings and recommendations to improve the Sheriff’s Office’s 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 King County Council to represent 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 here:

Here’s a response sent out by the KCSO shortly after the OLEO report was released:

Since Sheriff Johanknecht took office in January of 2018 she has made a number of changes to our Internal Investigations Unit.

There is new leadership. IIU is now under the command of Captain Rodney Chinnick.

IIU no longer reports directly to the Sheriff, so as to avoid any undue influence, or the appearance of such, regarding outcomes of cases. For the same reason, IIU has been moved out of the Sheriff’s Office suite to other offices within the courthouse. Soon, IIU will leave the courthouse all together, to a location more comfortable and inviting for witnesses and members of the public.

Unfortunately, the information used as a basis for the report released by OLEO today is very dated (2015-2016). Therefore it does not provide the most accurate snapshot of our current IIU practices under this new administration.

Sheriff Johanknecht has consulted with other Sheriff’s Offices across the country regarding best practices for internal investigations. Sheriff Johanknecht said “I embrace independent oversight and am continuing to review best practices from across the country as we refine and improve our IIU policy and procedure.”

In response to the Sheriff’s Office recent press release, OLEO Director Deborah Jacobs released the following statement:

“Although the Sheriff’s Office has begun moving the location of its Internal Investigations Unit, the shortcomings identified in the OLEO report relate to whether procedures and practices are being followed for documenting, investigating, and responding to use of force complaints.

“Despite the 2015-2016 data used in the report, OLEO staff currently observes deficiencies in the processing of use of force complaints. For example, the Sheriff’s Office’s Internal Investigation Unit still largely relies upon written statements rather than conduct in-person interviews of deputies.

“If implemented, the procedural recommendations made in this report will ensure that the quality of work will be consistent and lasting.

“We hope that the Sheriff and her leadership team will see the merit in our review and recommendations, and take advantage of this expertise in assessing those systems and practices that most impact police and community relations. We welcome the opportunity to work through these recommendations with the Sheriff’s Office.”

Here’s video of the lawyer who represents Le’s family discussing the police shooting:

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