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caption: A file photo King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht being sworn in on Jan. 2, 2018, in Seattle. Johanknecht was elected to the position. A ballot measure asks voters to decide whether the position should be appointed.
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A file photo King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht being sworn in on Jan. 2, 2018, in Seattle. Johanknecht was elected to the position. A ballot measure asks voters to decide whether the position should be appointed.
Credit: AP Photo/Elaine Thompson

Behind the change in how King County will choose a sheriff

Amid the overwhelming focus on the presidential race this election here in King County, there were also decisions on the ballot that will have long term ramifications when it comes to policing. Voters have overwhelmingly approved changes to how the sheriff's office will be run, including having the sheriff appointed, not elected anymore. KUOW’s Amy Radil has the details.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Why is the move to have the sheriff appointed rather than elected a big deal?

Well, it means that we're going to have some new players in public safety in King County. Typically, our elected sheriffs have come up from inside the department. Now, the county executive and the council want to do a national search as they appoint the next sheriff, similar to the way a lot of cities hire their chief of police. Councilmember Rod Dembowski says he appreciates that voters were willing to make the change:

“That was a big ask of voters. We asked people to really give up power at the ballot box for a better system, and I think they looked at the arguments for against and said, let's give it a try.”

Not everyone was in favor of this, of course. Police union supporters spent a lot of money to try to block this, around $200,000, but they were unsuccessful. Why are they so opposed to this idea?

The King County Police Officers Guild and the sheriff say when you have an elected sheriff, the accountability for the public is really clear. Councilmember Kathy Lambert opposed these charter amendments. She's worried that an appointed sheriff will get more caught up in political pressures, as she thinks Seattle was with the protests around the East precinct:

“We saw what happened to Carmen Best when things became political. That was not good for the department, and it's ultimately showing not to be good for the city of Seattle.”

She blames that climate for the number of police officers who are leaving SPD. What can King County residents expect to see with county policing in the next year, and what's going to happen with the current Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht?

Sheriff Johanknecht will serve out the remaining year of her term. It goes through 2021. Meanwhile, councilmember Girmay Zahilay says they will convene a group of community stakeholders, including family members of people who died at the hands of King County deputies to talk about what they hope to see next. He supported these amendments. He says they are a direct response to the demonstrations calling for police accountability.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.