King County sheriff vows to stay put

KING COUNTY, Wash. — Despite calls for her resignation, King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht said she’s not stepping down. “No, I’m not going to resign.” Johanknecht told KIRO 7.

Last week, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott joined a small chorus of people calling for Johanknecht’s resignation for her response to a $5 million settlement with the family of Tommy Le. Le was an unarmed 20-year-old who was shot and killed by Deputy Cesar Molina in 2017. “The truth is Deputy Molina shot and killed an unarmed 120-pound Asian high school student in the back while he was retreating,” said Le family attorney Jeff Campiche.

Last fall, Johanknecht offered her condolences to the Le family, even though the shooting occurred before she was sheriff. After the settlement, Johanknecht sent an internal email to her staff. She wrote: “First of all, this case is not a reflection of how I view the actions of Deputy Molina in this incident.” Johanknecht added: “Proceeding to trial at this time runs the risk of a verdict based on emotion, rather than facts.”

The sheriff’s internal email was leaked and drew a demand for her resignation from King County Councilmember Joe McDermott. “Sheriff Johanknecht ripped the bandage off a still fresh and painful wound in our community,” wrote McDermott. He added that her email is “disrespectful to the young person who was killed, to his family and to our entire community.” The sheriff responded to McDermott and said, “I don’t know why he’s calling for my resignation other than what he might be saying in the media. He hasn’t talked to me.”

Devitta Briscoe’s brother, Che Taylor, was killed by Seattle police. Her police accountability group, “Not This Time,” is also calling for Johanknecht to step down. “It’s just a blatant disregard and uphold the actions of these officers is just, it’s just beyond me and so, yes, I’m calling for her resignation,” said Briscoe.

Johanknecht is not backing down from her words. “I’m not ashamed of what I said. It’s tough for the Le family, and I understand that, but the actions that Deputy Molina took saved lives.”

Johanknecht believes she has done a good job holding deputies accountable. She pointed to her firing last week of Detective George Alvarez. The sheriff said Alvarez was fired for his aggressive behavior that ended with deputies shooting and killing car theft suspect Anthony Chilcott. “He had de-escalation training. This wasn’t de-escalating a situation,” she said. When asked if Chilcott might be alive today if Alvarez had acted differently, Johanknecht responded, “I don’t know what the decision-making process would have, if it ultimately would have led there.”

In February, Johanknecht fired longtime Detective Mike Brown for mocking two “Black Lives Matter” protesters who were struck, with one killed, on I-5. Brown posted a meme that read, “All Lives Splatter.” When asked to respond to criticism that she is not sensitive enough to people of color, Johanknecht said, “I don’t tell very many people this or make a point of it. My stepdaughter is a Black woman. I have a deep care and connection about families of color, people of color.”

Johanknecht oversees a department with an overwhelming number of white men. “We can’t help but have both implicit and explicit biases,” said Johanknecht. She has pushed for body cameras, more training and more diversity. “We need members of the BIPOC community, members of the LGBTQ community to come, become part of us,” said Johanknecht.

The sheriff believes she has been held to a different standard than her male predecessors. “I really do believe that. I think I have an additional battle being a member of the LGBTQ community. I think that on top of that, it is prime time, for whatever reason, to try to run existing leaders of law enforcement out of their job. I think it’s shameful what happened to my friend, Chief Best,” said Johanknecht.

In November, King County voters passed a charter amendment that will make the sheriff an appointed, not elected, position. It was an amendment pushed by some members of the King County Council. “I think it’s about control. I think what they found in me was a very different sheriff than the predecessor, who, his staff did spend a lot of time with council members,” said Johanknecht. At the end of 2021, King County will be the only county in Washington without an elected sheriff. “I think whoever it is isn’t going to be called a sheriff,” said Johanknecht.

Johanknecht is not sure what she will do next. After 36 years, she got emotional talking about the men and women of the King County Sheriff’s Office. “I’ve had so many opportunities. I’ll miss it. It’ll be the people. It’ll be the communities, the memories of those you helped along the way.” Despite the criticism, Johanknecht believes you have to have the heart of a servant to be sheriff. “The people that do law enforcement, for the biggest majority, really do have a good heart and want to do the right thing. I would hope that I’ve left the sheriff’s office in a place for whoever picks up the reins will have had the advantage of four years of hard work by a lot of people.”