The King County Auditor’s Office released two reports earlier this month examining the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) enforcement of traffic laws and racial disparities in arrests and use of force. In both the reports, the Auditor’s Office found that KCSO deputies disproportionately targeted Black, Indigenous and Hispanic/Latine people.
KCSO is charged with policing unincorporated areas of King County, such as in White Center and rural communities along the Cascade mountains. It also contracts with some municipalities such as Burien and provides traffic enforcement for many cities including Shoreline, Sammamish and SeaTac. Nearly a third of calls to the office come from transit agencies, marine jurisdictions and King County International Airport — Boeing Field.
In the first report on traffic enforcement, the Auditor’s Office found that white officers were more likely to use force against Black motorists than motorists of other races. The report also found that households who lived in areas with larger Black and Hispanic/Latine populations were twice as likely to receive traffic tickets as those who lived in predominantly white neighborhoods.
The second report focused more specifically on racist disparities within KCSO’s policing practices. The auditors found a big disparity between the willingness of white deputies and deputies of color to commit violence. Between 2019 and 2021, white officers were more than 50 percent more likely to use force, while Black and Asian officers were nearly 50 percent less likely to use force.
According to the report, KCSO officers used force 619 times, of which only four were found to be in violation of the office’s policies.
During the same time period, the report found that KCSO officers used force disproportionately against Hispanic/Latine and Black people, while force was used against white people 35 percent less than other racial groups. White officers were found to be more racist in their use of force than KCSO officers as a whole.
The report also found that KCSO disproportionately arrested Black, Indigenous, Pacific Islander and Hispanic/Latine people. KCSO arrest data shows that the office was particularly anti-Black in its arrest rates, with Black people in King County being over 350 percent more likely to be arrested in proportion to the total population.
KCSO calls were also geographically more concentrated in communities of color in South King County, including the Muckleshoot Nation, Burien, White Center and SeaTac.
The Auditor’s Office also explored potential alternative crisis response models from Albuquerque, Austin, Denver and Phoenix. These alternatives involved either a civilian-led response or a joint responder approach which includes both an officer and a civilian crisis response specialist.
In analyzing KCSO data, the auditors found that 58 percent of calls to the KCSO could be categorized as the lowest-level risk category, and that 15 percent of KCSO dispatches could be diverted to alternative crisis response models.
The KCSO has already started implementing some alternative response models, including co-responder diversion program Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion.
Following the publication of the damning reports by the Auditor’s Office, KCSO leadership appeared to be in damage control mode. In a newsletter obtained by Real Change sent to staff members on June 16, Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall and Undersheriff Jesse Anderson emphasized that KCSO officers’ use of violence was limited. They wrote that force was only used in 0.06 percent of calls and that
“[m]ost of the time the force was minimal, such as pointing a firearm.”
Cole-Tindall and Anderson also encouraged staff to continue policing King County communities. “To disengage or de-police is not what our community members would want from you,” they wrote.
It’s unclear whether this refusal to disengage or de-police includes pursuing the alternative crisis response models outlined in the auditor’s report. However, what is crystal clear is that the KCSO has a big racism problem which doesn’t look like it’s going away anytime soon.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the June 29-July 5, 2022 issue.