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How King County Sheriff’s Office charter amendment votes on your November ballot can also change policing in Seattle

Girmay Zahilay thinks next month’s election is a once-in-a-decade opportunity for changing the way Seattle communities police themselves, but not in the way you might think.

The debate for months locally has been around the Seattle City Council’s moves to defund the police and shift some functions, such as 911 operations and parking enforcement, out of the department. Meanwhile, the Metropolitan King County Council has no such authority to change the ways law enforcement works at the county level.

The first step in improving how the King County Sheriff’s Office works, county councilmember Zahilay argues, is through a charter amendment on the ballot next month that grants the council the ability to decrease the department of public safety’s duties

“All of these structural barriers create a situation where, yeah, we can do budgetary sticks and carrots, but we can’t really have the true accountability and the true innovation to public safety like other jurisdictions can,” Zahilay told CHS.


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He hopes that if Charter Amendment 6 passes, which it needs a simple majority of the vote in the county to do, the council could attack a lot of the issues already being investigated in Seattle, like dispatching mental health crisis counselors and youth coordinators when law enforcement isn’t necessary.

“What we’ve been hearing locally and nationally from the largest movement in American history,” Zahilay said, “is that they want a better system of public safety; one that doesn’t continue to do harm to marginalized group, like Black people; one that doesn’t deploy armed police officers every situation that comes up in our region. And instead changes our system to one that is more like a diverse tool kit of public health and community-based alternatives.”

The measure would also make the county executive responsible for bargaining with law enforcement unions, instead of the elected sheriff who currently does it.

Zahilay says he agrees that police unions should be able to collectively bargain over wages and work conditions, but “when we’re talking about oversight that needs to be independent and not subject to bargaining.”

Opponents have attempted to connect this move and other charter amendments related to law enforcement to the movement to defund and dismantle police. The county’s department of public safety could not be abolished even if Amendment 6 passes. They also say the power to alter law enforcement shouldn’t be in the hands of politicians who could hinder strides they perceive police as having made toward transparency and addressing bias in recent years.

Zahilay combatted this argument by saying that the sheriff position itself is currently a political one.

Perhaps the most controversial alteration to the county’s charter would look to change that by returning the sheriff to an appointed, rather than an elected position, after an amendment in 1996 was approved by voters to allow the public to choose the top law enforcement official in the county. Current sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht, elected in 2017, is against this measure.

“The sheriff has to run that office and keep people safe,” former sheriff John Urquhart told KOMO in July. “That’s the primary job, not some political agenda that somebody else might have.”

The King County Officers Guild injected $150,000 into the race to defeat the charter amendments, according to campaign finance filings.

Charter Amendment 4 would look to bolster the county’s civilian Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) by granting it the ability to subpoena witnesses and documents related to its investigations, such as those into use of force. The OLEO, which was established in 2015, can investigate and review the conduct of county law enforcement officers, but Zahilay and others argue they had little power to get information from police.

“Right now, they can’t compel documents, they cannot hold officers accountable for misconduct,” he said. “The way that I see a future of a true oversight body is one that is community-based, that has the voices of people who have been impacted by police violence, one that is able to compel documents, one that is able to hold officers responsible for misconduct, one that is selected through some kind of democratic and equitable process. We don’t have that right now.”

Current charter also requires an inquest into any death involving a county law enforcement officer. Amendment 1 would broaden this so that an inquest is required “when an action, decision, or possible failure to offer appropriate care by a member of a law enforcement agency might have contributed to a person’s death.” The county would also be required to assign an attorney to represent the family of the deceased if the amendment passed.

There were no statements submitted to the ballot against Charter Amendments 1 and 4.

Many of these amendments were recommended before protests against systemic racism and police brutality captured the region by the Charter Review Commission, which includes members from across the political spectrum from former Republican state senator Joe Fain to activist Nikkita Oliver. The commission creates these recommendations every 10 years, which is why Zahilay says the county has a unique opportunity this year to fundamentally alter the region’s law enforcement.

The one change going to the ballot that was not one of the recommendations was Charter Amendment 6, which instead originated in the council.

Ballots are slated to be mailed for the November 3 election this week. All of these amendments pass if they garner a majority of votes.


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One thought on “How King County Sheriff’s Office charter amendment votes on your November ballot can also change policing in Seattle

  1. Zahilay: “…they want a better system of public safety; one that doesn’t continue to do harm to marginalized group, like Black people; one that doesn’t deploy armed police officers every situation that comes up in our region. And instead changes our system to one that is more like a diverse tool kit of public health and community-based alternatives.”

    Urquhart” “The sheriff has to run that office and keep people safe….That’s the primary job, not some political agenda that somebody else might have.”

    Two different focuses. There is no reason they can’t be incorporated together but it seems neither side wants to

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