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King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht on gangs and gun storage

King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht stops by the Dori Monson Show. (KIRO Radio)

If anyone has had an up-close look at the Puget Sound’s gang problems, it’s King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht.

“It’s been significant to me because I’ve lived it the last two years,” she told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson. “When I was the precinct commander out at our southwest precinct — White Center, Skyway, those areas — we were involved on a daily basis in this gang war that’s going on in the South End. And it’s not just in our jurisdiction, it’s across jurisdictions.”

This is why the county’s proposed two-year budget includes nearly $850,000 for the King County Sheriff’s Office to start a gang unit. Nine months into her new role as sheriff, Johanknecht said that she is very grateful to King County Executive Dow Constantine for including the funds in his budget.

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“We’re just trying to keep our head above water, which is really why I really like the fact that we’ve got at least the groundwork for a gang unit,” Johanknecht said.

Dori asked the sheriff if she sees a connection between sanctuary city policies and gang crime. He pointed out that the City of Burien has named itself a sanctuary city and is often the center of violent gang crimes, most recently with the stray bullet that hit and killed a 51-year-old woman in a chiropractic clinic.

“I don’t see a connection between that and any crime, and I don’t see it as a connection with gangs — I really don’t,” Johanknecht said. “Our focus has always been, in at least the 34 years that I’ve been with the Sheriff’s Office, is focusing on crimes, criminal actions, and making sure victims are protected.”

Dori pressed Johanknecht further, asking why immigration and citizenship status are not looked at when suspects are arrested and booked into jail.

“I don’t think that that particular data is going to help us do our daily job, which is responding to 911 calls and doing investigations into the crimes that are committed in King County,” she said. “That just doesn’t come into play with how we go about our daily business.”

What is far more important for the King County Sheriff’s Office, she said, is “getting people to report crime,” a problem throughout the county at the moment.

When it comes to the region’s drug crisis, Johanknecht is firmly against supervised injection sites. Although the King County Prosecutor’s Office is spreading its LEAD Program — which allows people caught with small amounts of illegal drugs to forgo jail in favor of services — from Seattle to the rest of the county, Johanknecht said that the Sheriff’s Office will not “stop investigating those cases.”

“We still have to confiscate the illegal drugs … I want to make sure that we’re documenting, for our aspect, for the work that we’re still doing — if the prosecutor doesn’t prosecute that stuff, we still to account for the work that we have to do every day … from my side, I still need to document disposal of the products,” she said.

Johanknecht also addressed the county’s new gun storage law, which requires residents to lock their firearms securely in safes. Those who do not comply can face fines.

“I got some information about the law, but it wasn’t until this process was pretty well being developed at the county council level for the ordinance that I was told about it,” the sheriff said.

Dori asked her if this means that the council ignored the top law enforcement position in the county.

“They’re their own legislative branch,” Johanknecht replied. “I would hope that they would have come a little bit sooner, but that doesn’t always happen — that’s not always how it always works.”

In a closing question, Dori referenced a rumor from county employees, claiming that Executive Constantine uses sheriff’s deputies as his own personal Uber, requiring them to drive him to social outings in the evenings.

The executive typically receives “a daytime security detail of one person who drives the county executive to meetings and policies,” Johanknecht said, but “we don’t drive for after-hours things.”

“At the first of the year, I made sure we had our policy and practice in place about that,” she assured Dori.

Above all, what Johanknecht wants the public to know is how much she appreciates the entire force at the King County Sheriff’s Office.

“I think we have an amazing crew all across the Sheriff’s Office,” she said. “We’re very blessed.”

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