by Miryam Gordon -
SGN Staff Writer
Our new Sheriff seems to be part of Team Social Justice. Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht has been on the job since her swearing in on January 2nd, 2018, and her priorities and focus for her department are beginning to take shape. She spoke to SGN recently about her 33-year career in King County law enforcement and her plans now that she has been elected to the highest law enforcement position in King County.
Her bio on the website says:
'Born and raised in King County, Mitzi Johanknecht has served her community for 33 years and is an experienced, progressive law enforcement leader. She began her law enforcement career when she joined the King County Sheriff's Office on January 8th, 1985. Through her history of dedication and hard work, along with a strong sense of honor and respect, she worked her way up through the ranks and was elected to the position of Sheriff on November 7, 2017.
'Mitzi started as a deputy in the North Precinct and was promoted to the rank of Sergeant before having ten years on with the department. A quick four years later she was promoted to the rank of Captain. She has served in leadership roles in every division and location in the Sheriff's Office. As a deputy, she was the first to work with a multi-disciplinary team in King County housing. She collaborated with other agencies, community groups and residents to build relationships and trust, promoting public safety. Mitzi was the first woman to command TAC-30, the King County Sheriff's Office SWAT team.
'Mitzi and her wife, Maureen, live in West Seattle. She volunteers on the board of Companis, a local non-profit, and does production assistant work for the Seattle Men's and Women's Choruses. Their adult daughter, Sydni, and son-in-law Scott live in New York City.'
My first question was 'Why did she want to do law enforcement? Why sheriff and not city-type policing?' She describes how she found out about jobs in the Sheriff's Department.
'I went to university at UW to play basketball and got a great education out of it. I continued [my schooling] at WWU [toward] a BA in Education to become a teacher. I didn't finish my BA. It wasn't required to join the Sheriff's Office. As I was finishing, I had a softball coach who was the first woman to be a field officer in the Dept. of Corrections in Washington state. She suggested I look at going into law enforcement as a career.
'At that time I had friends I'd played sports with and one of my dear friends worked for the King County Sheriff's office. I went on a ride along with her. Six months later, I was in the police academy - WA State Criminal Justice Training Center (which provides all training for basic police academy work for everyone except the State Patrol). The reason for the Sheriff's office in particular relates to the type of work. Within the Sheriff's Office, you're serving anywhere from urban to rural to the mountains and so you have more autonomy and you have more time to do community related things. 'Social justice' or as it's known now, community policing.
'I've worked in every division and in every precinct in a lot of different jobs. My favorite job? Aside from being Sheriff, I got to work as the first King County deputy to work in public housing as their community officer. I was the officer for two different housing complexes and those were in my district and I worked hand-in-hand with youth up through the more seasoned residents. That was a fun experience.
'I've been allowed to do so many things from search and rescue and operations to criminal investigations division where I oversaw the drug unit and court protection (including court houses and members who come to court and/or work inside).'
Now that she's Sheriff, having seen how the whole department works from just about every angle, Johanknecht clearly has plans to change, refine, and focus aspects of department function. So, from what she spoke about on the campaign trail to digging in and making actual plans, what were some of those issues that she campaigned on and how is that going?
'There were things I talked about while campaigning and some of those promises are starting to be able to deliver,' Sheriff Johanknecht says. She speaks about her perception that the department had suffered in certain ways under the prior administration and that 'the department is healing as we start coming together and folks are feeling safer to do their work rather than come under unfair investigations.' She emphasizes that she wants to ensure that her administration treats people with 'dignity and respect.' So, clearly, having said that, she feels that the prior Sheriff did not do this for the department. However, that's all the specifics I got.
Sheriff Johanknecht did get into some very specific actions she is taking right this minute to roll out change in ways big and small.
She says, 'We're just about ready to train our folks on the use of naloxone and get that information out to all our operations so we can save people's lives.' Public health officials and studies from around the country have pointed to the use of naloxone and the readiness to have a shot available can mean the difference between life and death to someone having an overdose reaction.
She clarifies that 'there are about 40 deputies already trained' in using naloxone, but she is determined to making it part of the standard kit or issue that every deputy first-responder has - expanding to about 300 more, including, for instance, court marshals. Any uniformed personnel who are in first responder roles would be included.
Another effort underway is to complete acquisition on 'less lethal shotguns so less lethal options can be used in the field.' Sheriff Johanknecht says, 'We've purchased about 80 shotguns and people are being trained to use them. We have other tools: pepper spray, Tasers and those are the two less lethal weapons before our firearm. This is another tool that can be used before lethal force to allow us to deal from a distance with people in crisis. Tasers are close in and if they don't work, you start to run out of options. These shotguns shoot a bean bag round. It hurts and is distracting for pain compliance, but typically does not penetrate the skin.'
People may disagree about the idea of adding a less lethal firearm being a form of de-escalation, but most of the people in this county might like the idea that our deputies have more options to prevent killing folks when they're acting out. There are logistics regarding how many pieces of equipment one deputy can successfully carry and manage, so that might be a concern.
As for the big plans, the main direction the Sheriff is going is toward developing a strategic, multifaceted plan for the near term. She says that the Sheriff's Office does not have one. She indicated that there wasn't one in place from the past administration, so she's basically starting from scratch and thinks it will take six to nine months to fully develop. The scope is comprehensive.
'[One of the areas] we're looking at [is] officer and deputy wellness and being thoughtful about types of uniforms and vehicles so they're providing good officer safety and are healthier, reducing costs for health care,' Sheriff says. 'An example is: we have taller and taller people [as deputies] and fitting them into some department cars makes it tough for a 6' 4' or 6' 9' person getting into and out of cars [that have] limited seat areas with consoles in the middle. When the officers have to get out quickly, it can be difficult [bumping knees or straining backs or hitting heads]. So, good work spaces for deputies in cars.
'[Similarly, there is] the gear we ask them to carry on their gun belts and taking care of officers backs. Also, professional staff in the office - we're looking at sit-stand desks for people, for instance, in our communication center. [We're focused on] longer term employee health. We have an aging workforce and when people are working later into their lives you want to take care of people's health.'
That's one way to focus on long-term strategy. The other major area the Sheriff is working on is implementing the Executive Equity and Social Justice strategic plan. This is a plan that already existed but she says that the Sheriff's Office wasn't engaged into that process, which is apparently a County-government-wide effort to bring it into the Sheriff's Department.
Asked about the fact that she is an Out and married Lesbian and if that would make any specific difference to her work or to the Sheriff's Department, Sheriff Johanknecht is clear that making sure the department treats everyone with respect is a top priority.
She says, 'I think we need to continuously work on making it safer for protected classes and immigrant populations to report to the police. They should want to report to the police and we should thoroughly investigate their concerns. I don't have specific numbers, it's not data you ask or collect, but I have heard stories and also hear about fear of reporting. How do you capture that data if people don't report [crimes to the police] in the first place?
'We're working on staffing a new section - instead of a general focus, we'll have a section that will actually have that community engagement, including relations, recruiting, encouraging LGBTQ folks to become members of the Sheriff's Office and having a community liaison approved in a supplemental budget to add staff to the Sheriff's Office. That is just an initial staffing up and it will be overseen by my chief of staff, Liz Rocca. That's a priority for me.'
[The] Sheriff's plan is to apply for funding to add two additional members to the media relations office, currently a staff of one - a community liaison officer in charge of equity and social justice strategic planning and doing community outreach, and a recruiter, who would also focus on recruiting from diverse and less-represented communities for staff jobs.
I asked about the perception that some police out there are reluctant to admit they might have implicit biases or that those biases might impact the way they do their jobs. Sheriff Johanknecht immediately responded. 'When I got into office oversight, I had all our upper command attend a three-hour overview from a gentleman who does implicit bias training all over the United State. We are working to expand that training and bring him back to train the entire department on implicit bias.
'We're always cycling through anti-harassment, anti-discrimination [issues and trainings], but this was given a thumbs up by all the staff because it was done differently than other trainings. We're also looking forward to [the changes required by the passage of] Initiative 940 and what training will be required and what changes will happen at the police academy. We want to stay current in any trainings that help break down distance between communities and the Sheriff's Office.
'Part of that is going [out] to listen to the communities and we're starting to set up listening sessions to try to break down barriers that members of the community point to. [We're looking at] everything from coordinated efforts in working with other county department or the County Council where they've already planned to go out and have these sessions, or the Sheriff's Office going out to learn. I don't want to talk at people; I want to listen to people.'
I couldn't resist asking for a personal 'How did you meet?' story! Apparently, the Seattle Choruses (the Seattle Men's Chorus and Seattle Women's Chorus) became matchmakers! The Sheriff has volunteered for the Choruses for years now, and many people might guess that it's because her wife, Maureen, has been a long time singer. It appears it's the other way around - the Sheriff was already a Chorus supporter. '[Maureen and I] met at the Chorus Auction on 3/17/01. I was there as a guest and so was she. Little did we know that people who hosted our table were deliberately setting us up to meet each other. So it was a semi-blind date. And we're still together after all these years!'
SGN celebrates the election of Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht and her focus on strengthening social justice in our County! We look forward to the fruition of her plans and applaud her focus on these needed changes.
Share on Facebook
Share on Delicious
Share on StumbleUpon!