Mitzi Johanknecht and John Urquhart, who are running for King County Sheriff, exchange ideas for how to improve the law enforcement agency at the Sept. 5 Rotary Club meeting at the Mercer Island Community and Event Center. Katie Metzger/staff photos

Sheriff candidates debate discipline, management at Mercer Island Rotary

“Accountability” was the buzzword of the day as King County Sheriff candidates John Urquhart and Mitzi Johanknecht exchanged ideas for improving the county’s 13th largest sheriff’s office at the Sept. 5 Mercer Island Rotary Club meeting.

At a time when law enforcement agencies around the country are struggling to connect with the communities they serve, both candidates said they would make progressive policing and public outreach priorities if elected.

Urquhart, the incumbent and a Mercer Island resident, said that his management of the sheriff’s department over the past five years has seen a reduction in crime and costs, and an increase in diversity among deputies. The challenger Johanknecht, who lives in Seattle and has served in the sheriff’s office for more than 30 years, said that her leadership style would be compassionate and community-oriented.

Both candidates have served in many roles in the sheriff’s office, which has more than 1,000 employees and a $175 million budget. It provides contract police services to 12 cities and Metro transit. Urquhart was a patrol officer, field training officer, street-level vice/narcotics detective and public information officer. Johanknecht has led two different precincts, and was the first woman to command the sheriff’s SWAT team.

“It’s time for me to open up and share at a broader level, to bring community and law enforcement together at this time when law enforcement is intersecting in various ways across the country. And some of them aren’t good. But many of them are,” she said. “I lead with compassion and look for ways to catch people doing the right thing, not the wrong thing.”

She said that Urquhart has fired 22 officers since 2012, and also criticized the department for “dishing out money for lawsuits” during his tenure. The suits, one of which was settled for $1.35 million, allege gender discrimination and retaliation against deputies who speak up against management.

Urquhart has taken a hard line against deputy misconduct since his election, but said that he only fired people for cause — ranging from alleged paycheck fraud to pepper spraying a homeless person’s water bottle. He said he has applied the same principles to ranking officers.

“I believe in accountability,” Urquhart said. “My opponent has a group of supporters that don’t like the changes I’ve made in the sheriff’s office… They don’t like me holding (command staff) accountable to the same standard as a police officer. If they don’t do the job… they don’t get promoted.”

Urquhart said that “discipline is important,” especially because people had lost trust in the sheriff’s department under his predecessor. When he won the sheriff’s race in 2012, it was the first time a challenger had unseated an incumbent.

In 2012, Urquhart did not receive the endorsement of the Seattle Times, which came out against him again this year. He called recent articles about him in the paper “inflammatory, half-true stories… fed by an attorney.”

Johanknecht said she was willing to give second chances to officers who make mistakes, and would invest in more deescalation and crisis-intervention training. She and Urquhart both came out in support of Initiative 940. It would change the language of Washington’s deadly force law, which currently states that officers cannot be held liable if they acted “without malice and with a good faith belief.”

Efforts by community groups to change the law, which was recently debated in the Legislature, were underscored by the recent shooting of 30-year-old Charleena Lyles by Seattle police.

“We have challenges, like any other police department does. I think more in the last couple of years,” Urquhart said.

Both candidates agreed that diversifying the sheriff’s department to reflect the range of cultures in King County was important. Johanknecht said she would build community councils and focus recruiting efforts in the county’s communities of color and immigration. Urquhart said that he advised the county to change its civil service test so that it gives the advantages available to ex-military recruits, who are mostly white men, to people who speak a second language or have served in the Peace Corps, which is 70 percent female.

“I have never not promoted a woman anywhere in the organization when I’ve had a choice,” he said. “Right now, my captains — remember that 11 percent overall (are women) — are 14 percent female. My majors are 22 percent female. My contract city police chiefs are 44 percent female, and my division chiefs, the highest ranking, are 67 percent female. That’s a huge change.”

If elected, Johanknecht said she would focus on developing a strategic plan for the department, preparing for emergencies and advocating against safe injection sites.

Urquhart said that his management saved King County taxpayers $5 million last year, which was returned to the county’s general fund. He said that wasn’t in lieu of hiring more officers, as the department is at capacity, but was accomplished by managing overtime, sick days and miscellaneous expenses. He was also able to use the savings, and donations, to put more AEDs in police cars.

Urquhart has raised more than $85,000 for his campaign, and Johanknecht has raised about $38,000. The election for King County Sheriff will take place on Nov. 7. Ballots will be mailed on Oct. 15.

For more on the sheriff’s office, go to www.kingcounty.gov/depts/sheriff.

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