Tamer Abouzeid, the new director of King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), said changes in the King County Police Officers Guild contract need to be made in order for OLEO to have real oversight.
The remarks were made Oct. 5 during a presentation to the King County Council’s Law and Justice Committee. This is the first time Abouzeid has appeared before the council as director of OLEO. Abouzeid discussed the findings from OLEO’s annual report and made it clear that some things need to change so that OLEO can fulfill its mission.
One of the first things Abouzeid brought to the committee’s attention was the lack of power OLEO has when it comes to investigating misconduct allegations.
As it exists now, OLEO is unable to actually investigate allegations of police misconduct in the King County Sheriff’s Office, Abouzeid said.
“We have to note that the investigations are conducted not by OLEO, but by the internal investigations unit at the sheriff’s office,” Abouzeid said. “OLEO has the power to conduct investigations according to our ordinance, but that power was bargained away in the collective bargaining agreement with the King County Police Officers Guild.”
In the next round of negotiations with the guild, the council needs to remove the restrictions on OLEO’s ability to conduct independent investigations, Abouzeid told the committee.
King County voters made it clear that they want OLEO to have the power to investigate misconduct when in 2015, they voted to approve Charter Amendment 1, which gave OLEO the power to conduct investigations. In 2017, the King County Council passed an ordinance to implement Charter Amendment 1, officially giving OLEO the power to conduct investigations.
Then in February 2020, OLEO’s authority to investigate misconduct was stripped away when King County Executive Dow Constantine signed the collective bargaining contract with the police officers guild. Section 22.3 of the contract goes against the will of the voters and prohibits OLEO from investigating misconduct allegations if the sheriff’s office is already investigating it internally and the employee in question is represented by the guild.
Instead of actually conducting the investigations, OLEO is currently only authorized to review the sheriff’s office’s internal investigations and certify them. Certification by OLEO simply means the investigation was thorough, objective and timely, Abouzeid said.
Complaints and use of force
In 2020, the most common complaint made by community members was that a sheriff’s office employee acted in violation of rules, policies or procedures, accounting for 21% of all complaints, Abouzeid said. The King County Sheriff’s Office’s investigations sustained about 13% of these complaints.
The second most common complaint was that a sheriff’s office employee acted without courtesy toward a member of the public, accounting for 17% of all complaints, Abouzeid said. The sheriff’s office investigations sustained 3% of these complaints, Abouzeid said.
The third most common complaint, and arguably the most serious, was excessive use of force — accounting for 15% of all complaints, Abouzeid said. However, the sheriff’s office did not sustain any of the 56 allegations of excessive use of force, Abouzeid said.
OLEO cannot review every investigation the sheriff’s office executes because of a lack of personnel and resources, but in 2020, they were able to review 115 investigations, Abouzeid said.
Of those 115 complaint investigations, OLEO certified 103 as thorough, objective and timely and declined to certify 12 investigations, Abouzeid said.
Abouzeid pointed out that a disproportionate number of the investigations not certified by OLEO were investigations into the use of excessive force.
“As I said earlier, no community allegations of excessive force were sustained, so it is of note that almost half of the investigations that OLEO declined to certify — that’s five of 12 — involved an allegation by a community member of excessive use of force,” Abouzeid said.
Another problem Abouzeid pointed out is that with investigations into allegations of serious misconduct, which could result in suspension or worse, the burden of proof is higher than for other misconduct allegations.
According to the King County Sheriff’s Office General Orders Manual: The standard of proof, in most cases, for an administrative investigation is generally “a preponderance of evidence.”
A preponderance of evidence means the burden of proof is met when based on the evidence, and there is more than a 50% chance that the claim is true, according to Cornell Law School.
The General Orders Manual continues: The standard of proof in cases in which criminal or serious misconduct is alleged, and there is a likelihood of suspension, demotion or termination, the standard of proof must be “clear and convincing,” which is a higher standard than “a preponderance of evidence.”
The clear and convincing burden of proof requires the evidence to be “highly and substantially more likely to be true than untrue,” according to Cornell Law School.
In other words, it is harder for the sheriff’s office internal investigators to sustain serious misconduct allegations compared to minor misconduct allegations. None of the 56 allegations of use of excessive force were sustained.
“To be honest, I’m not sure why this is a thing. Administrative investigations should always be judged under a preponderance standard and that’s the accepted standard nationwide,” Abouzeid said. “There should be no heightened standards for alleged misconduct.”
After the fact-finding portion of an internal investigation is when OLEO reviews the investigation and either certifies or declines to certify it. After that, the sheriff’s office will write its findings — whether an allegation is sustained or dismissed, Abouzeid said.
If an allegation is sustained, that is when the sheriff’s office decides what disciplinary action, if any, is taken, Abouzeid said.
“So a certification of a case means that we think the investigation itself was thorough, objective and timely, but it is not an opinion one way or the other on either the findings or on the discipline imposed, if any,” Abouzeid said.
You can read the entire list of the reasons OLEO declined to certify each of the 12 investigations on OLEO’s website.
Areas of improvement
The OLEO also makes policy recommendations for the sheriff’s office, but the sheriff’s office isn’t required to implement OLEO’s recommendations — another issue Abouzeid brought up.
“Of all the systemic recommendations we made in 2020, the vast majority of them are classified as open, meaning the sheriff’s office has not taken any action in response,” Abouzeid said.
Toward the end of Abouzeid’s presentation, he highlighted several areas of improvement.
“Number one, we need body-worn cameras. Number two, we need more responsiveness to policy recommendations from the sheriff’s office. Number three, we need more consistency from the sheriff’s office regarding investigations, findings and discipline. And finally, most of all, the collective bargaining agreement — we need the barriers to oversight to be removed from the contract,” Abouzeid said.
The current King County Police Officers Guild contract is valid until Dec. 21, 2021, according to the contract. After Abouzeid’s presentation, King County Councilmember Rod Dembowski said the council would be renegotiating the contract with the guild in the coming months and asked OLEO to submit recommendations for the changes to the contract.