When King County’s new sheriff was sworn into office on Tuesday she took the time to thank her predecessor, despite the contentious race.
Mitzi Johanknecht, a 33-year veteran of the King County Sheriff’s Department, took the upset victory in the November election to oust former Sheriff John Urquhart.
Urquhart was plagued with allegations of sexual misconduct and accused of creating a toxic work environment through threats of retaliation. Urquhart denied all of the allegations, claiming they were politically motivated.
Urquhart wasn’t at the swearing-in ceremony, but that didn’t stop Johanknecht from taking a moment to acknowledge her predecessor.
“I also want to take a moment to thank Sheriff Urquhart for his five years of service and his commitment to the sheriff’s office. I didn’t want the day to pass without acknowledging that and him.”
Johanknecht says she’s reached out to Urquhart during the transition to becoming sheriff.
“I’ve tried to speak to him, I’ve reached out by phone and email, but I’ve received nothing back.”
She says she’s had plenty of other helpful insight.
“I’ve gotten great help from other people in the organization and so I think that that’s what’s been important in helping us transition and get ready inside the department. And now, as the sheriff, I can work with the county executive more fully, the county council, the prosecutor’s office, and others to make sure that we’re holistically solving problems for King County.”
Johanknecht is clear about her priorities as she takes over command of the King County Sheriff’s Office.
“So, my priorities are getting really engaged with the community, [and] working on community outreach so that we can initiate community advisory councils [to] help us build our strategic plans. But just to get to know the people all over King County because each community is separate and individual and has their own kind of ebb and flow to them.”
Johanknecht says community outreach was happening under the prior leadership, but not the way she plans to do it.
“I think it was happening just at one level. My mission is to be out in the community and have from deputies on up re-engaged totally in the community in our public safety efforts, and that includes making sure people feel confident and safe coming to talk to us and share with us so that we can better learn by listening.”
Being a good listener is a common theme for the sheriff both inside the department and out on the streets, including when it comes to trying to help close the divide between police and communities of color, she says.
“I think the start is reaching out to the communities and just listening. In talking to the communities during the campaign what I found was that they know the barriers that are keeping community members from being involved in law enforcement, wanting to be cops, right? So that’s the starting place, help us overcome those barriers and we don’t know without listening.”
And Johanknecht has strong opinions on some of the big issues affecting law enforcement, including Initiative 940, which would require specific mental health and de-escalation training for all cops in the state.
“I was the first announced law enforcement officer in favor of I-940, I’ve worked with the I-940 team. It gets us mandated training that helps us get the training funded, that gets deputies de-escalation training, more crisis intervention training, and other training that will help them really manage and do their jobs better day to day.”
And unlike many in law enforcement, she supports the part of I-940 that removes the requirement to prove malice when prosecuting police for use of deadly force cases.
“It takes malice out, but it also gives us a real clear understanding about what good faith is, and so it has that objective and subjective test of good faith and I think that those of us that operate in good faith will be fine with the wording change in the law. You hear a lot about malice, but the focus for me is we’re still going to do our job how we do it and do it with good faith, but the training piece is essential to helping us be better at what we do every day.”
And even without I-940, the sheriff has some of her own new training plans for deputies.
“A lot of the training initiatives I was pushing on during the campaign the former sheriff had started, which is good. But one of the things I’m looking forward to is having another — less lethal tool — option for us. Those tools are delivered to the sheriff’s office and we will be able to deploy them shortly, by February if not sooner.”
Another major issue in the law enforcement community is the possibility of opening safe injection sites. The county council wants two in King County. But the sheriff says that’s dangerous.
“I’ve been against safe injection sites. I still am. We still need to talk about and explain to law enforcement what their role is around these and how we go about our business. I’m majorly concerned with re-victimization of folks that are coming in to use the sites and leave … the potential for re-victimization is there. I’ve heard from women who have been involved in and escaped from human trafficking and one of their concerns is that that could be, as users, very risky for those people that might get reintroduced into human trafficking.”
In other words, human traffickers could lurk around the sites to recruit victims.
Johanknecht also stands with her predecessor when it comes to asking people about their immigration status — she’s against it. Johanknecht says doing it is a huge deterrent to getting people to report crime and talk to law enforcement.
Though she’s got more than 30 years on the force, including several command positions like being the first female to lead the department’s SWAT team, Johanknecht admits the politics of her new gig are a little new to her.
“I’m a new politician so that was a real learning experience during the course of the campaign. But what I found is that just listening to people and talking to people and getting out there, that’s the fun of campaigning. It was really amazing, an energy of talking to the public and hearing about what they need. That’s inspiring.”
And it’s that inspiration she plans to take with her to the job — to be there for both the community and the officers.