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Originally published September 19, 2012 at 7:58 PM | Page modified September 19, 2012 at 8:07 PM

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Sheriff, challenger trade jabs over agency's shortcomings

The race for King County sheriff turned contentious Wednesday as incumbent Steve Strachan and challenger John Urquhart traded barbs for a good portion of a debate in Renton.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The race for King County sheriff turned contentious Wednesday as incumbent Steve Strachan and challenger John Urquhart traded barbs for a good portion of a debate in Renton.

The debate, sponsored by the King County Police Chiefs Association, marked one of the first times that Strachan has directly attacked Urquhart, the former longtime sheriff's spokesman who has regularly criticized Strachan's leadership since announcing his candidacy in April.

At one point, Urquhart sharply criticized the Sheriff's Office's handling of a May 2009 incident in which a deputy slammed Christopher Sean Harris into a wall, leaving him permanently brain-damaged, paralyzed and unable to speak. He said the Sheriff's Office failed to retrain the deputy, Matthew Paul, and accused the department of attempting to downplay the seriousness of the incident.

Urquhart said the department wrote off Harris' injuries as "a cost of doing business."

Strachan, who joined the Sheriff's Office about 20 months after the Harris incident, countered by saying Urquhart, who was the Sheriff's Office media-relations officer at the time, had characterized the incident as "a tragic accident" without taking responsibility.

Wednesday's debate opened with questions about management, crime fighting, accountability, community outreach and leadership from moderator Enrique Cerna, of KCTS-TV. As the 90-minute debate wore on, Urquhart and Strachan began trading broadsides critical of each other's work with the Sheriff's Office.

Urquhart, who retired as a sergeant a year ago after 23 years at the Sheriff's Office, accused Strachan of being a short-term sheriff who is using the position as a steppingstone to higher office. Strachan, who was appointed sheriff in April after the departure of Sue Rahr, has weakened the department's use-of-force oversight, accountability, staffing and morale, Urquhart charged.

"He gutted internal investigations," Urquhart told the crowd of mostly uniformed officers at the Carco Theatre. "We are on the cusp of having the DOJ (Department of Justice) come in."

Urquhart said the Metropolitan King County Council has focused an unprecedented amount of scrutiny on the Sheriff's Office after two recent consultants' reports critical of department oversight of deputies' use-of-force incidents and citizen complaints.

On Monday, the County Council unanimously approved a list of 18 recommendations aimed at bolstering department oversight. The recommendations were drawn from the two recent consultants' reports.

Strachan said he supports the findings in both reports and is working closely with the council to implement change.

"It's bumpy. ... Change is difficult," Strachan said during the debate. He noted that Urquhart, as a challenger, faces a far less arduous task when it comes to making improvements in the department.

"It's easy to talk about what you're going to do," Strachan said.

Strachan, 47, said that during more than 20 years at the department, Urquhart advised other sheriffs. Strachan said that the department he's working to reform now was essentially created while Urquhart was there.

"John Urquhart is a King County Sheriff's Office lifer. He was part of the inner circle; he was there; he was a trusted adviser," Strachan said.

Urquhart, 64, responded with more harsh words for his former agency, pointing to the Harris incident from 2009, which prompted a lawsuit against the county and a $10 million settlement.

The case returned to the spotlight on Friday when a judge rebuked King County for deliberately withholding information on from attorney for Harris' family about Deputy Paul's history of troubling behavior. The judge ordered the county to pay a $300,000 sanction and could order more money to be paid to Harris' family.

After Strachan noted that his challenger was department spokesman during the incident and resulting internal investigation, Urquhart responded by saying that he spent only 10 years working with the sheriff's administrative staff.

"I was only a sergeant; I didn't make policy," Urquhart said.

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

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

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