Five years ago, John Urquhart made history as the first person to defeat an incumbent to become King County Sheriff.
Mitzi Johanknecht wants to be the second.
A 32-year veteran of the department who rose through every rank, Johanknecht said she supported Urquhart at the beginning of his tenure, but grew disappointed that, “the things the talked about haven’t materialized within the sheriff’s office.”
With the encouragement of several inside the department, she entered the race in April, and believes her experience and leadership style separate her from her opponent.
“I don’t make decisions based on emotion or personality disputes,” she said.
Urquhart — himself a nearly 30-year member of the sheriff’s office with four decades in law enforcement — said he has brought accountability to the upper ranks of the department.
That’s something he believes has rankled some members of the command staff, those now supporting his challenger.
“I expect them to work,” he said. “I expect them to be leaders in the sheriff’s office, and I expect them to put in the time. And if they don’t, they’re not going to be promoted … I don’t have to put them in the best jobs that they necessarily want. I’ll put them where I can use them the best, and they don’t like that.”
Meanwhile, Urquhart said his relationship with the rank-and-file union remains strong, despite firing 22 officers for cause — more than the previous three sheriff’s combined. Those dismissals were, in Urquhart’s words, “not because I don’t like the cut of their jib,” but rather against officers who had lied about their interaction with the King County Metro Transit driver, and another who had pepper sprayed a water bottle at a homeless encampment, among others.
Johanknecht said while it’s important to hold people accountable, “you can be fair, consistent, kind, and compassionate as you work with people who may struggle in the work.” Beyond the internal politics of the department, the challenger also wants to improve community outreach, and establish community advisory groups. That also includes an emphasis on recruiting across diverse communities.
“If you’re talking about recruiting locally and hiring locally and making sure that you’re providing opportunities for people locally to serve, we need to have full-time recruiting,” she said.
The two have also clashed over the direction of the sheriff’s office, with the challenger saying that officers on the ground aren’t given guidance about how to connect with the community.
“There’s a lot of good cops out there trying to do the best they can without a clear mission and plan for what we need to be doing,” Johanknecht said.
That mission would be informed by both a strategic plan and a business plan in the office, both of which she said don’t currently exist.
But the incumbent said not only did he identify a mission for the sheriff’s office, but that he deliberately kept it simple: To reduce crime and the fear of crime.
To that end, crime has decreased each year since Urquhart took office, which he said is in line with national trends. However, he also noted that in his tenure there’s been a new emphasis on solving crimes.
That said, the incumbent said he wants officers to be aware that they’re more than just “report takers,” and they have to get out into the community.
“We have to understand that we can’t arrest our way out of society’s problems,” Urquhart said. “That’s what I tell my deputies all the time. If you need to take somebody to jail, take somebody to jail, but with the understanding that not everybody needs to go to jail, and I trust them to make that decision based on the culture that I’m setting for the sheriff’s office.”
Urquhart has also come under fire recently for comments made at the 45th District GOP’s annual barbecue versus remarks made to The Stranger.
“I think anybody tailors their comments to their audience … If you really drill down and you look at what I said, there’s really no difference,” he said.
Among those topics was community health-engagement locations, where users could inject heroin under medical supervision, in an effort to curb overdose deaths and increase access to treatment services. Urquhart said he’s philosophically against the idea, but not in application and reality.
“I think it’s horrible that in this day and age in our society, that’s our solution to the drug problem,” he said. “But, they will save lives, and I always said they will save lives, and if they save lives, if we reduce harm by having them, then I’m in favor of them depending on where they are.”
That means not in locations like Bellevue or Kent or Federal Way, “because the people don’t want them there,” but if a city like Seattle and its elected leaders — “presumably representing the public” — sign off on one, he will not oppose it.
Johanknecht has come out against community health-engagement locations. She is, however, a proponent of outfitting every sheriff’s deputy with naloxone (Narcan), and said it’s important to put treatment, “first and foremost,” for those dealing with addiction once contacted by police.
The incumbent said he too is in favor of naloxone for each officer. Among Urquhart’s other plans for another term are the expansion of less-than-lethal contact methods with the purchase of 100 bean-bag shotguns, the establishment of a watch commander system to have a captain on duty after 5 p.m. each night (currently the highest-ranking officer on the street after that time is a sergeant), and allowing job-sharing for officers.
“You don’t need to work 40 hours a week to be able to do this job,” he said.
Urquhart also said he wants to outfit officers with body cameras, which has become a proxy for another point of contention in the race.
For the challenger, a lack of progress on implementing a body camera program — a pilot program is expected to rollout at the first of the year — is an area where Urquhart has been all talk.
“It’s about actually taking action and not just saying what you think people want to hear to overcome things,” Johanknecht said.
But the incumbent insists it’s not that simple. Bluntly, he said, “it’s expensive as hell.” He wasn’t referring to the cameras themselves, but the cost of redacting footage for hundreds of officers.
“That’s a one-to-one relationship at this point,” he said.
To be able to move forward he needs funding from the County Council, something he said hasn’t happened. In the meantime, he said the pilot program will move ahead with the idea that public pressure — something that has developed over the past four years — will convince both the council and county executive to commit to greater funding.
The incumbent has also received backlash for his handling of a rape allegation made against him by a former deputy, a claim the sheriff denies. Investigators found insufficient evidence to support criminal charges stemming from the incident —which allegedly occurred in the early 2000s but was only brought to the FBI in 2016 — and also noted the Statute of Limitations had expired.
The King County Ombudsman’s Office concluded in August that Urquhart should have referred the allegations to an outside law enforcement authority for investigation, and recommended a new policy be established requiring an independent investigator for such complaints against police leadership.
Still, Urquhart believes that keeping the support for the community for the sheriff’s office has been his biggest accomplishment since taking office.
“That’s what’s key,” he said. “And you can lose it that fast, and so my goal day in and day out is to make sure that we maintain that trust.”
That’s something the challenger believes is important as well.
“We’re at a crossroads in society in law enforcement’s interactions across the nation,” she said. “Certainly it’s just as important here that we reach out and link with our communities, and make sure that what they’re telling them is truly transparent, and that we work with them to help us change how we provide public service and public safety.”
Ballots for the general election have been mailed to registered voters, and must be postmarked by Election Day (Nov. 7) or returned to a drop box by 8 p.m. that night.
For more information on Urquhart’s re-election campaign, visit www.johnforsheriff.com. To learn more about Johanknecht’s bid, go to www.mitziforsheriff.com.