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Originally published September 10, 2012 at 12:11 PM | Page modified September 11, 2012 at 5:56 PM

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Report slams how shootings by King County deputies are investigated

In a 70-page analysis, a leading expert on police accountability calls for the King County Sheriff's Office to set up a new review board to examine shootings and use of force.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Full report on police accountability

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The King County Sheriff's Office needs a new review board, possibly with a citizen member, to improve serious flaws in the way it examines shootings by its deputies, according to a highly critical report to be presented Tuesday to the Metropolitan King County Council.

Decisions by the sheriff's Shooting Review Board have displayed an "absence of serious deliberation and explicit reasoning," says the 70-page report prepared by Merrick Bobb, the head of a Los Angeles-based consulting firm who is considered one of the nation's leading experts on police accountability.

The report, a copy of which The Seattle Times obtained, recommends the shooting board be replaced by a "Use of Force Review Board" that would examine all shootings by deputies as well as serious incidents of other kinds of force.

Such a board might consist of three voting members, including the sheriff's head of training, a rotating top commander and a citizen representative, the report says.

The report is to be considered Tuesday by the County Council's Government Accountability, Oversight and Financial Performance Committee.

It follows similar findings that were presented to the council in July, when a Chicago consulting firm made up of retired police chiefs of major cities found serious deficiencies in the sheriff's internal-investigation procedures. Among the examples was that in all of last year the Internal Investigations Unit reviewed only two use-of-force complaints.

Sheriff Steve Strachan, who is running for election this year after being appointed in April to replace outgoing Sheriff Sue Rahr, said Monday he concurs with the recommendations in the new report.

Strachan said many changes are already being implemented, including a concerted effort that began three months ago to bring about a new use-of-force board.

But half will require bargaining with the King County Police Officers Guild, said Strachan, who previously agreed with proposals in the July audit to bolster internal investigations.

"Our challenge is not to get distracted by politics," he said, alluding to the premature release of the report.

Strachan's opponent, John Urquhart, a former sheriff's sergeant and longtime media spokesman for the department, called Monday for a "change in leadership," saying in a statement that Strachan has had more than 1 ½ years to fix problems raised in the audit and the new report. Rahr hired Strachan as her chief deputy in January 2011.

Office "understaffed"

The new report was requested by King County's Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), which is headed by a civilian director, Charles Gaither, a former investigator with the Los Angeles Police Department. Gaither warned after the release of the earlier audit that the U.S. Department of Justice might next look at the Sheriff's Office in the way it has focused on the Seattle Police Department.

The new report found OLEO is "understaffed to an astonishing degree," that more resources "should be provided ... rapidly," and that the office should have authority to reject inadequate use-of-force reviews.

It also suggests stronger policies covering, among other things, the use of deadly force, pepper spray and Tasers.

In its centerpiece recommendation regarding a use-of-force board, the report said investigations should include "a more robust examination and a point-by-point analysis of a given incident" to determine whether sheriff's employees violated criminal law or department policies, made good strategic and tactical decisions and acted consistent with training.

The board, the report says, should consider whether the department needs policy or training changes and examine whether "realistic alternatives" to the use of force would have led to the safe capture of a suspect without compromising the safety of deputies.

High-profile case

The report draws attention to a case in which an internal review found a deputy's use of force was "not unreasonable," even though county lawyers viewed the incident as running a "high risk of an astronomical judgment."

"What we found was that the case had not been rigorously analyzed by KCSO and that its conclusions were not supported by the record," the report says, noting a "troubling" lack of reasoning and critical analysis.

While the report only describes the case as receiving widespread public attention, it appears to be referring to the county's $10 million settlement last year with the family of Christopher Sean Harris, whom a sheriff's deputy shoved into a concrete wall in 2009. Harris, formerly of Edmonds, suffered a catastrophic brain injury requiring round-the-clock care.

His wife filed a lawsuit, accusing Deputy Matthew Paul of acting negligently and using excessive force.

The sheriff's review lacked any discussion of the deputy's previous uses of force or misconduct, the report says.

Other points

A major flaw in the department's procedures, the report says, is allowing deputies up to 72 hours to submit a written statement on their use of force.

The delay allows deputies to reconstruct events, rather than "purely recollecting" them, the report says. "We believe that a deputy involved in a shooting should be treated as any other traumatized civilian in an investigation," it says.

Statements should no longer be in writing and be immediately taken by a commanding officer who can ask "insightful questions," the report says. In a review of 15 shootings in which 11 people were hit and eight died, statements from deputies were "often truncated and self-serving," it says.

Strachan said making that change might require bargaining with the guild.

The report cites many examples of excellent law-enforcement work in "high-pressure" situations.

Nonetheless, improvements are needed, the report says, including greater use of less-lethal options — including Tasers, tear gas, beanbag guns and pepper spray — that also should be considered in shooting reviews.

Noting that many shootings are of people who are intoxicated or experiencing mental problems, the report recommends that the Sheriff's Office develop a crisis-intervention team. It also recommends that the office focus its investigations more on the deputies, witnesses and the incidents rather than on circumstances surrounding the suspect.

"In nearly all of the reports, there is twice the information on how the evidence was collected than the shooting incident itself," the report says.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com

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