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Mitzi Johanknecht, King County Sheriff
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Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht responds to department criticism, investigation

Mitzi Johanknecht is sworn in as the King County sheriff. (Hanna Scott/KIRO Radio)

Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht has come under fire with heavy criticism over an allegedly “dysfunctional” department. That criticism was evident when two of her personally-appointed division chiefs resigned with sharp statements over management.

“I was honored to have both of these chiefs on my team, I respect their decision to retire and do other things…” Sheriff Johanknecht told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

KIRO Radio recently reported about two division chiefs with the Sheriff’s Office resigned, citing issues with management. This includes allegations of bullying and discrimination.

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Chief of Field Operations Lisa Mulligan was one of the resignations. Chief of the Intelligence Unit Jerrell Wills was the other. He said management was rude and condescending. He specifically said that Undersheriff Scott Somers was retaliatory. Wills also argued that this toxic environment added up to him being treated differently as an African American.

These allegations were investigated by an outside firm. The sheriff shared the results of the independent investigation with the Jason Rantz Show Thursday.

“The outside investigator concluded that there was no racial bias involved concerning that leadership team member,” Sheriff Johanknecht said. “I concur with the finding that there was no racial bias. I did take corrective action by sustaining a courtesy violation against the undersheriff.”

In other words, aside from finding no racial bias, there were still some issues with Somers’ management style. The report states that he did bully and speak down to chiefs.

“By sustaining a courtesy violation … ‘sustaining’ means that wrongdoing was done,” Johanknecht said, noting that the corrective action is currently an in-process personnel issue, and she therefore cannot comment on it.

Another point of tension was the allegation that Johanknecht shut down the Sheriff’s Human Trafficking Unit. This is not true, she says. In fact, the Sheriff’s Office doesn’t have a Human Trafficking Unit, she notes. Rather, there are various assignments throughout the organization that work on different levels of human trafficking.

“What might upset some is that I’ve chosen not to do investigations like the one that happened right before I took office that ended in not such a good way,” she said.

That case was a large investigation into human trafficking in Bellevue. The Sheriff’s Office was working with federal authorities, looking into massage parlors dealing in prostitution. Johanknecht said there were “some gaps in technology” that created problems.

“What I told our staff is that I no longer wanted to do these big investigations that have the potential of re-victimizing victims of human trafficking,” Johanknecht said. “For me, that means that we are going in and doing investigations and trying to catch the perpetrators who are using, in this case, female victims of human trafficking.”

The sheriff says she is interested in investigations that focus on victim rescue that further works with connecting victims with services. She is less interested in cases that deal with seizing business assets.

“The approach is different,” she said. “Nobody has lost an assignment about this.”

Sheriff Johanknecht says that she has attempted to enact changes in the King County Sheriff’s Office since she was voted in. Those changes and new leadership naturally can cause some “bumpy waters.”

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“That’s happened multiple times within the sheriff’s office throughout my career,” she said. “…people have retired and moved on, so that creates change. In the past, I’ve known people who have been demoted. All that takes place, and it’s just something that happens in the course of any business, or government.”

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