Next King County sheriff faces tough decisions to reform agency
October 16, 2012
By Warren Kagarise
The contest to lead the King County Sheriff’s Office could hinge on a series of audits into how the agency operates.
The sheriff oversees a budget of about $150 million and about 1,000 employees, and leads the largest local police organization in the state after the Seattle Police Department.
The contentious race pits Sheriff Steve Strachan, a former Kent police chief, against John Urquhart, a former sheriff’s office sergeant and spokesman.
King County Council members appointed Strachan as sheriff in April, not long after former Sheriff Sue Rahr resigned to lead the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, or state police academy.
Though the election is to fill the Rahr’s unexpired term through 2013, the next sheriff faces a landmark effort to reform the agency in response to audits critical of policies put into place under Strachan’s predecessors.
Strachan, a SeaTac resident, served as a police chief and state legislator in Minnesota before accepting the Kent post in 2006. In the Minnesota Legislature, he helped pass legislation to reduce the blood-alcohol limit to 0.08 percent. Rahr tapped Strachan as the chief deputy, or No. 2 spot, at the sheriff’s office in early 2011.
Urquhart, a Mercer Island resident, appeared as a familiar presence on TV screens and in news articles throughout the region for years as the agency spokesman. Before he became the public information officer, he served as a field training officer, a patrol officer and a street-level vice and narcotics detective.
The most significant issue for the next sheriff is the process of addressing problems uncovered in the recent audits.
“The issues that have been raised in the audits — none of those surprised me. I knew those coming in. It’s why I came here,” Strachan said. “Those are exactly the issues that go back years in this department that I came to address.”
The series of audits lambasted the way the agency examines shootings by deputies, disciplines personnel and handles citizen complaints.
The candidates in the race for sheriff collected endorsements from law enforcement and political leaders.
Urquhart said reports released by the county auditor in July and September damaged the agency’s reputation.
“If we can’t convince communities — not to mention the Department of Justice — that we take discipline seriously” then the agency’s standing could sink further, he said. “I don’t mean discipline from the standpoint of going after the officers. That’s not it. It’s the processes that have to be followed.”
Strachan said Urquhart, a longtime adviser to former sheriffs Dave Reichert and Rahr, deserves some blame. Urquhart said Strachan’s claim is not accurate.
“I could advise — and I did on a very regular basis — but I couldn’t make policy,” Urquhart said. “I couldn’t change policy.”
Relationships define sheriff’s duties
Strachan and Urquhart said the relationship among the sheriff’s office and municipal police agencies in King County is critical. Both candidates said the sheriff’s office should act as a partner to local police departments.
“We have a history of sort of acting like, we’re from the county and we’re here to help — and we’re here to take over,” Strachan said. “We haven’t always played well in the sandbox.”
Smaller police agencies often rely on the sheriff’s office for aid in major incidents and investigations. In September 2011, for instance, sheriff’s office investigators spearheaded the investigation into a shooting death at Clark Elementary School because the incident involved Issaquah officers.
The sheriff’s office also serves as the police agency for King County Metro Transit and Sound Transit sites in Issaquah and countywide.
Issaquah School District campuses rely on the agency for school resource officers.
Under a contract between the sheriff’s office and the Issaquah School District, administrators pay the county $55,000 per year to fund a school resource officer at Liberty High School.
The school resource officer at Skyline High School in Sammamish is funded through a separate contract between the city and the sheriff’s office, and the city and school district share costs.
(The school resource officer at Issaquah High School is provided by the Issaquah Police Department.)
In recent years, budget cuts battered the sheriff’s office, and impacted patrols and property crime investigations in unincorporated areas near Issaquah and elsewhere in the county.
Strachan announced a plan Oct. 12 to hire 14 deputies in the months ahead by using dollars from the existing sheriff’s office budget.
Urquhart said the initial step to the restore residents’ confidence in the agency is to encourage interaction between deputies and residents.
“We don’t have beat officers anymore because we can’t afford them, but we can still park that damn police car and get out and walk around,” he said. “My deputies are going to do that. They’re going to interact with the public.”