King County’s Police Oversight Office Faces More Turmoil

King County officials announced Friday that the Sheriff’s Office has hired Patti Cole-Tindall to become one of its top-level managers.

The job brings Cole-Tindall inside the agency she has been monitoring for almost a year.
Since last November, Cole-Tindall has been the interim director of the county’s beleaguered Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, which has struggled to get up and running for almost a decade. Cole-Tindall’s departure will leave the oversight office at yet another crossroads.

The office is also the subject of a charter amendment on the November ballot, an attempt by King County Councilmembers to strengthen its role.

The group’s website contains no news or signs of activity beyond 2013, other than a 2014 annual report.

However, in her role as OLEO director, Cole-Tindall has been certifying internal investigations over the past year, King County Sheriff John Urquhart said.

Urquhart said he doesn’t see the need for changes to OLEO’s role.

“Is there a clamor from the public?” Urqhart asked. “No. I challenge the Council to come up with any citizen that’s called them up to say, ‘Oh my God you have to fix OLEO, it’s a farce!’ I’m not getting those calls. I guarantee you the Council is not getting those calls.”

But King County Councilmember Larry Gossett, who backs the charter amendment, said, “The King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight unfortunately has very low power.”

He said it needs the authority to do investigations and a strong citizens advisory committee. “Those are the two key elements of the charter amendment that I’m hopeful passes on November 3rd,” he said.

The charter amendment would broaden OLEO’s investigatory powers. But that would be subject to agreement from labor unions.

Still, King County Auditor Kymber Waltmunson said the amendment is an important first step in making the office more effective.

OLEO has been in the works since it was proposed in 2006. It’s intended to work jointly with the Sheriff’s Internal Investigations Unit to make sure complaints of misconduct involving Sheriff’s employees are properly investigated.

In addition, OLEO was intended to build public trust and to make systemic recommendations to improve KCSO operations. Civilian oversight has been expanding around the country in the wake of the police shooting in Ferguson and new calls for accountability.

The office has never had staffing or authority comparable to the Seattle Police Department’s oversight office, which classifies and investigates all SPD complaints.

OLEO’s role has instead been to monitor those investigations and make suggestions. But a recent audit by the King County Auditor found numerous impediments to OLEO’s effectiveness as it now stands.

“What we found in our audit,” Waltmunson said, “is that the current structure for law enforcement oversight has problems with getting unfettered access to information, that they don’t yet have the authority to match the Council’s intent for the program, and they don’t yet have the independence to create a credible oversight system.”

The office’s role has been subject to labor negotiations with the King County Police Officer’s Guild. The guild’s latest contract strengthens OLEO’s role in certain ways.

Staff are now guaranteed access to the scenes of major investigations and to subsequent review boards.

But it also placed new restrictions on the office’s access to investigation records. OLEO staff are not allowed to print or download records, and the sheriff can cut off access to OLEO in certain cases without clear criteria.

“If they can’t print documents and they can’t download documents, and the sheriff can decide to turn off their access to information with no real oversight from any other body, there is the potential for oversight to essentially be turned off,” said Brooke Leary, who helped write the recent audit.

Urquhart said he sought those provision around access to records at the request of the King County Council, after the stormy tenure of the first OLEO director, Charles Gaither.

“You’ve got to remember, we’ve only had civilian oversight that works for less than a year because of the prior director who was clearly problematic,” Urquhart said.

Gaither ultimately sued the county, and settled the lawsuit last fall.

Urquhart said he supports the charter amendment “as a symbolic gesture,” but he blasted the timing of it, saying candidates to run OLEO permanently have all withdrawn because of the political uncertainty.

Now Cole-Tindall’s departure will mean a new interim director at the very least.

Urquhart said his willingness to make tough decisions has earned the community’s trust. He said he’s fired 17 deputies “for cause” since being elected in 2012.