County adopts Office of Law Oversight

Three years of work to provide independent civilian oversight of internal investigations by the King County Sheriff’s Office came to fruition Monday, as the Metropolitan King County Council unanimously approved legislation to implement the creation of a new Office of Law Enforcement Oversight.

“The Office of Law Enforcement Oversight will increase transparency in potential police misconduct cases and restore the public’s trust that legitimate concerns will be fairly and thoroughly investigated,” said Council Vice Chair Bob Ferguson. “Meaningful civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s Office internal investigations process is important to the accountability and integrity of our county government.”

“The people of King County have continued to ask for transparent and independent review of complaints against Sheriff’s deputies,” said Councilmember Julia Patterson, co-chair of the Council’s Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee. “The overwhelming majority of the men and women who work for the Sheriff’s Office have seen their reputations threatened by the actions of a few. Moving forward with civilian oversight protects the people who put their lives on the line every day while restoring public confidence that complaints will be taken seriously.”

Ferguson and Patterson first called for civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s Office in January 2006, following an investigation that raised serious concerns about inadequate handling of misconduct allegations. The council conducted nearly a year of research, intensive discussion with citizens and experts, and a review of how other jurisdictions provide effective oversight.

The new Office of Law Enforcement Oversight will report directly to the King County Council. The office will be responsible for receiving complaints of alleged misconduct, actively monitoring the Sheriff’s internal investigations unit, and assessing its thoroughness and objectivity. The office will present an annual report about the complaint investigation process that will include recommendations for improvement.

Many elements of the reforms were negotiated as part of a new labor contract between the county and the King County Police Officers Guild, the union representing Sheriff’s deputies. The negotiation process concluded last year, and the Council approved the new contract in December.

Where specific provisions of the new contract differ from the reforms originally passed by the Council in 2006, the legislation adopted today enacts oversight language consistent with terms of the contract. The legislation implements many reforms that were part of the original ordinance, including:

• permanent and ongoing law enforcement audit process to analyze and suggest course corrections for investigative processes and policies.

• A countywide citizen panel to provide input for the director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight on policies, procedures, and practices related to the investigation of officer misconduct. The 11-member panel would aid the office in informing the community about the sheriff’s discipline policies and foster communication between the public and the Sheriff’s Office.

• A voluntary officer-citizen mediation process as an alternative method of resolving complaints, which would allow willing citizens and officers to meet with a professional mediator to discuss and resolve their differences.

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