Julia Patterson: Law adds accountability to Sheriff Office’s complaint process

  • BY Wire Service
  • Thursday, May 28, 2009 1:47pm
  • Opinion

I was shocked this spring when I watched the disturbing video of a King County Sheriff’s deputy pushing and kicking a 15-year-old girl. Within hours, I had received calls and e-mails from residents here at home and from all over the country. They were outraged and shaken by what they saw on TV and wanted to know how it happened and what we were going to do about it.

We know that most police officers would never do something like this, and it is important to recognize that 99 percent of King County Sheriff’s deputies get up every morning, serve with honor and take courageous risks to protect our communities. Sadly, a few officers who commit crimes against citizens can shake our confidence that law enforcement will protect us from harm.

It is with both residents and the majority of police officers in mind that I have advocated for a more open and accountable complaint process in the Sheriff’s Office. Three years ago, King County Council member Bob Ferguson and I sponsored sheriff oversight legislation, which was endorsed by the sheriff, the Sheriff’s Blue Ribbon Panel and passed unanimously by the King County Council.

And on May 11, three years later, I was finally able to vote for its implementation. Many of the changes we proposed needed to be bargained into the union contract, which was agreed upon late last year.

The legislation we passed reflects the compromises made during the collective bargaining process. Although it doesn’t go as far as originally envisioned, I think it is a great first step to add accountability and independent oversight to the complaint process.

How was a complaint handled before sheriff oversight legislation?

When someone issued a complaint involving a King County deputy, that complaint was made with the Sheriff’s Office, it was investigated by the Sheriff’s Office and the findings were issued by the Sheriff’s Office.

Complaints were NOT tracked by an outside entity, the investigations were NOT monitored and the findings were NOT reviewed.

This system was not transparent enough and did not provide adequate accountability or independent review.

How will a complaint be handled with the sheriff oversight reforms in place?

We will now have a place outside of the Sheriff’s Office where citizens and deputies can bring their complaints, called the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight.

Investigations will be monitored by independent civilians outside of the Sheriff’s Office.

Findings from investigations will be reviewed to be fair, thorough and appropriate by the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, separate from the Sheriff’s Office.

With the oversight legislation I sponsored, if citizens have a complaint or feel they were treated unfairly, they will have an independent, unbiased avenue open to them where they will find someone who will receive their complaint and monitor the investigation.

Likewise, our sheriff’s deputies will have a place where they can register a complaint or report misconduct without fear of retaliation or ostracism.

The bottom line is that we’ve made progress, but still have work to do in order to truly open our police investigation process to the public. I will continue to work with King County Sheriff Sue Rahr and the Police Officer’s Guild to phase in additional oversight and reforms, based on what we learn from the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight.

The precious trust placed in law enforcement officials calls for a higher level and standard of independence and transparency in oversight matters. With these new reforms in place, I hope that residents of King County will feel confident that oversight is just and balanced.

Julia Patterson’s County Council District 5 includes part of Renton. She can be reached at 206-296-1005 or at julia.patterson@kingcounty.gov.


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