After outcry on police accountability, does it play a role in Sheriff’s race?

Tommy Le (Courtesy photo)

Renee Davis and Tommy Le died in separate incidents earlier this year after being shot by King County Sheriff’s deputies, leaving local communities reeling.

The department’s response to Le’s death in Burien in June was criticized after a press release failed to clarify that the “sharp object” Le was holding was not a weapon, but a pen. Davis, who was pregnant when she died, was shot at her home on the Muckleshoot Reservation in March after a family member called police fearing that she might be suicidal.

But despite a summer of community outcry over the two incidents, the issue of these recent police shootings have not been at the forefront of the news coverage of the race for King County Sheriff.

Much of the coverage has focused on allegations of sexual assault against King County Sheriff John Urquhart made by former deputies, and how the department has handled them. Urquhart has said that the accusations are a political ploy by his challenger, Major Mitzi Johanknecht, who denied her involvement with those investigations.

On the issue of police accountability, both candidates have expressed similar views on increasing de-escalation training and police accountability measures. But supporters of Tommy Le’s family believe the department’s actions speak louder than words — and they are dissatisfied with both candidates’ campaigns.

Riall Johnson, campaign manager of initiative backers De-escalate Washington, said he appreciated that both Urquhart and Johanknecht have backed an initiative campaign to put police accountability measures on the statewide ballot.

“They were the first law enforcement in the state to come out in support of this,” said Riall Johnson, campaign manager of initiative backers De-escalate Washington. “They’re open to receiving all types of tools and it can only help officers.”

But Linh Thai, president of Seattle’s Vietnamese Community Leadership Institute, says that he wishes that Tommy Le’s community and family had heard more from the campaigns.

“One thing both candidates can do better is that both of them have not done a good job outreaching into the Vietnamese American community,” said Thai, who has been supporting Le’s family and organized a community hearing this summer about the shooting. “They talk about engaging and demonstrating their experience and credentials, I wish they could do better in terms of outreach.”

Thai said that many in the Vietnamese community feel that the communications with the family so far has been to protect the Sheriff’s Office.

“It seems they’re trying to protect the deputy instead of doing what is right, instead of having an objective lens,” he said.

Le’s family filed for a formal inquest that was approved in September. An autopsy report revealed that Le was shot twice in the back. Additionally, a toxicology report came back negative for drugs or alcohol in Le’s system. A second toxicology report is pending.

“In the unlikely event that Tommy was somehow under the influence of unknown substances,” Thai said, “he didn’t deserve to be shot in the back the way he was.”

Thai sees this as the sheriff’s department pushing a narrative that Le was responsible for his own death.

“Many of us felt that the sheriff did know how Tommy was shot but withheld that information at the forum,” Thai said. “People asked for how he was shot and the Sheriff didn’t disclose that information. The family had to find out from the autopsy report.”

When asked, Johanknecht also criticized how the Sheriff’s Office handled Le’s death.

“That night of Le’s shooting,” Johanknecht said, “it was known in the department that he didn’t have a knife in his hand, that he had a pen. The press release came out different than that. That’s just not true.”

Johanknecht is the commander of the southwest precinct, which also covers Burien. In the interview with The Seattle Globalist said the department as a whole needs more diversity in the ranks, which could improve its relationship with the communities it serves.

Lackluster community relations is an area where both candidates need to improve, Thai said.

“Both of them are abysmal with expressing themselves in terms of community policing,” Thai said, “especially hiring community service members that don’t carry guns.”

Urquhart at the forum spoke about getting body cameras and dashboard cameras within the year. He spoke about having a state-level investigation, an impartial group that would investigate lethal use of force in situations like Le’s case.

Campaigns and promises

Urquhart — whose campaign promised an interview to The Seattle Globalist about this issue, but did not follow up repeated requests  — has promised both a mandatory review of police shootings and a use-of-force review board as part of his platform.

Urquhart at the community meeting said he would back Initiative 940, which is De-escalate Washington’s statewide campaign to increase police accountability and de-escalation training. Johanknecht also fully supports I-940 and she argues that measures like this could have been implemented years ago without any ballot measures.

Back in 2012, with Urquhart as sheriff, the Police Assessment Resource Center did a report that found the sheriff’s office needed to do more with de-escalation of force and deploying other less lethal options. Options, such as bean bag rounds and rubber bullets, existed then and exist now, but they aren’t used by the King County Sheriff’s deputies, Johanknecht said.

“John has had five years to implement those policies,” Johanknecht said. “He’s taken no action to do so. He might tell you that he has or that he’s doing the training now. In my opinion, we still haven’t purchased or deployed non-lethal tools to our frontline officers.”

De-escalate Washington’s campaign, which is aiming for the 2018 general election, calls for statewide de-escalation training, first aid training and non-lethal weapons, which could make a world of difference, especially in situations with people in crisis.

But Thai said the issue of lethal force runs deeper than not providing the right nonlethal tools.

“We think the body cams and the dash cams are good steps.” Thai said, “but we believe it could go further to training and attitude adjustments, it goes to training at basic training.”

Johnson, of De-escalate Washington, echoed this sentiment.

“When you break law enforcement policies down, the force describes people they encounter as a threat, and talks about eliminating the threat,” he said. “At some point, and too soon, these people stop becoming people and become a threat. They perceived Tommy Le as a threat.”

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