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Originally published July 24, 2012 at 8:45 PM | Page modified July 25, 2012 at 12:51 PM

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Probe of Sheriff's Office possible, oversight director says

Charles Gaither, the frustrated director of King County's Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, wondered on Tuesday whether the federal Department of Justice might take an interest in the Sheriff's Office after it's through with the Seattle Police Department.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The man hired to offer some civilian oversight for internal investigations in the King County Sheriff's Office has been frustrated in his job, and wondered on Tuesday whether the Department of Justice might take an interest in the Sheriff's Office after it's done with Seattle police, given the release of reports finding the office has a dismal record of investigating officer-involved shootings and allegations of on-duty misconduct.

Charles Gaither, a former investigator with the Los Angeles Police Department and the recently appointed director of the county's Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), sat in the back of the Metropolitan King County Council chambers Tuesday during an animated hearing over findings of an in-depth audit of the Sheriff's Office Internal Investigations Unit and said his job has not been easy.

Gaither, who was hired for the position last fall, said he thought things would be tough in King County but did not anticipate what he called a complete breakdown of communications with the King County Police Officers Guild, the union representing deputies. It already has filed several grievances against him, he said.

"It has slowed us down. It has hampered the abilities of internal investigations," Gaither said. "The DOJ (Department of Justice) is looking at Seattle Police Department in a critical way; it could easily pivot from the SPD to us."

Gaither testified before the County Council on Tuesday, along with representatives from the county Auditor's Office and a Chicago law-enforcement consulting firm hired to conduct part of the audit. All had the same message: There needs to be change in the culture of the Sheriff's Office and the way it handles complaints and investigations of deputies.

Hillard Heintze, the Chicago consulting firm whose leadership council is made up of retired police chiefs of major cities, pointed to a 2011 use-of-force statistic to illustrate its conclusion that something is amiss in the sheriff's Internal Investigations Unit: In all of last year, that unit reviewed just two use-of-force complaints in a department with nearly 1,000 employees. By comparison, the department in Eugene, Ore., which is just a fraction of the size, reviewed 14 force complaints.

The SPD's Office of Professional Accountability, which has found itself under scrutiny of the Justice Department, investigated 159 use-of-force complaints in 2011. The SPD has nearly 1,800 employees.

Hillard Heintze representatives offered the council eight findings and 18 recommendations for change. The King County Auditor's Office, in a separate audit, had its own list of recommended changes.

Sheriff Steve Strachan, who is running for re-election this year after being appointed to replace outgoing Sheriff Sue Rahr, said he agrees wholeheartedly with the recommendations and already has implemented some changes in training.

"This is a great conversation we should have," said Strachan, who the left his position as Kent police chief in December 2010 for the Sheriff's Office. "We need to stop being reactive and ensure follow-up. The culture of change must be initiated by me."

Conspicuously absent from the meeting were representatives from the deputies guild.

"Shame on the guild leadership for not being here," said County Councilmember Julia Patterson.

Council members say the issue of deputy oversight has been on their minds since the Office for Law Enforcement Oversight was created in 2006. The strength of the civilian position was severely weakened in 2009 after negotiations with the union.

In an email Tuesday afternoon, guild President Steve Eggert said that no one from the council advised the group of the meeting, nor was it provided a copy of the auditor's report or the Hillard Heintze analysis.

"I have heard that remarks were made that the Guild has effectively eviscerated oversight through bargaining," Eggert wrote. "Nothing has changed since oversight was bargained into our contract. "You might want to ask why, if oversight was so important to them, that these same council members waited until the final year of a five-year contract to implement oversight and hire a director."

Strachan said there is little in either report he wasn't aware of as problems and that in the nearly four months since he was formally appointed sheriff, he has focused on changes.

The recommendations presented Tuesday include:

• Enact a series of administrative, policy and procedural changes in the Internal Investigations Unit.

• Ensure that all complaints are forwarded to the unit and to allow the sheriff to independently order an internal investigation, which the Sheriff's Office policy currently does not allow.

• Place a high priority on training to ensure that deputies are meeting requirements established by the state and the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies.

• Evaluate the process by which use-of-force cases are reviewed and documented by supervisors to ensure consistency.

• Create a policy regarding the use of pepper spray.

• Create a clear policy for collaboration with the civilian-run OLEO.

• Allow the OLEO director, or a designee, to attend department hearings for deputies involved in on-duty shootings.

County Council members say the issue of deputy oversight has been on their minds since OLEO was created in 2006 but that the strength of the civilian position was severely weakened three years later after negotiations with the guild.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.

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