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Relatives of Black males killed by police call for King County sheriff’s resignation, deputy’s firing

UPDATED: Fri., March 12, 2021

King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht is sworn in to the position in 2018 in Seattle.  (Elaine Thompson)
King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht is sworn in to the position in 2018 in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson)
By Lewis Kamb Seattle Times

Relatives of several Black males shot and killed in recent years by local police on Friday called for King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht’s resignation for what they described as “her failure to treat racism with the seriousness it requires.”

The group, which asked King County Executive Dow Constantine and the Metropolitan King County Council for support, also demanded that Sheriff’s Capt. Todd Miller, who was involved in one of the fatal shootings, be fired for separately describing a group of Black teens as “animals” in a social media post last year.

After an internal investigation, Johanknecht gave Miller a one-day suspension.

“I want her to resign. I want Todd Miller to be fired, not promoted,” said Alexis Dunlap Francois, during a news conference outside the King County Administration Building in downtown Seattle. “She slaps us in the face by pretending to care and support our families.”

Dunlap Francois’ 17-year-old son, MiChance Dunlap Gittins, was fatally shot in 2017 during a botched sting operation aimed at arresting another youth for a homicide it turned out that neither teen had anything to do with. The sting was led by then-sergeant Miller, who is white and has since attained the captain’s rank.

Johanknecht wasn’t sheriff at the time of the shooting, but she recently suspended Miller for a day without pay after a colleague complained of his “very offensive and racist” Facebook post in April. By contrast, another deputy, Mike Brown, was recently fired for inappropriate social media posts.

Johanknecht, in a statement Friday, said “Discipline is a complicated matter,” adding there were “distinct differences in the pattern of social media behavior” displayed by Brown’s series of posts and Miller’s single post.

“To be clear, I do not condone the behavior of either of these members,” the statement said. “However I must operate within the parameters of KCSO policies, County policy, collective bargaining agreements and make disciplinary decisions that can be successfully defended should the matter go to binding arbitration.“

Her statement added: “I am the duly elected Sheriff until 12/31/2021 and I will not resign.”

Constatine’s office, in its own statement, noted the executive “was not involved in the investigation of Capt. Miller and has asked the Sheriff’s Office to share its reasoning for the level of discipline against him.”

Constantine has worked with and respects the views of the group “calling for action today,” his statement said. But, it also recognized Johanknecht’s intention to remain sheriff through her term’s end, adding Constantine will appoint a new sheriff then.

Council members did not respond to messages seeking comment Friday.

Policy reforms

Joining Dunlap Francois was Sonia Joseph, the mother of Giovonn Joseph-McDade, who was killed by a Kent police officer in 2017; Fred Thomas, whose unarmed son, Leonard Thomas, was killed by a Lakewood police officer in 2013 while holding his son; and Devitta Briscoe, the sister of Che Taylor, who was killed by two Seattle officers in 2016.

Friday’s event was organized by Not this Time – an anti-police violence group headed by Briscoe, the acting director, and co-founded by Taylor’s brother, Andrè Taylor.

Aside from expressing outrage over Miller’s discipline, the group said Johanknecht has repeatedly broken promises to reform her department.

“We have no trust that fairness (in discipline) is being applied,” Briscoe said. “And what that does is it further devalues Black life. It also further erodes our trust in law enforcement.”

Johanknecht has failed to follow-through on a key promise to Dunlap Gittins’ family: requiring deputies to use body and dash cameras, Dunlap Francois said. The promise came last May as part of the county’s $2.25 million settlement of the family’s federal civil rights lawsuit over the teen’s death.

“Mitzi has promised to support … reform, and it’s all a lie,” Dunlap Francois said.

The group also demanded Friday policy reforms at the Sheriff’s Office “to ensure that applicants and personnel are thoroughly screened for racism and other biases,” Briscoe said.

The calls for Johanknecht’s ouster also come amid frustration from within her own ranks over her administration’s alleged dysfunction. In recent months, several current and former employees who left during her tenure have criticized Johanknecht as an inept manager who largely has been absent from the job for months.

Johanknecht’s statement called such criticisms “false accusations (that) are part of a pressure campaign from labor groups who are upset because (I) have held their members to a high standard.”

Elected in 2017, Johanknecht upset incumbent Sheriff John Urquhart, a blunt-talking disciplinarian who was besieged by his own scandals during the campaign. But after taking office, Johanknecht alienated some high-ranking commanders who’d supported her bid, and several have since left the department.

With less than nine months remaining in her term, the first-term sheriff is a lame duck who will be replaced by an appointed sheriff come January. Voters passed a measure last November to eliminate the elected sheriff’s position in favor of one picked by the county executive.

In late January, Johanknecht sent out a department-wide email to employees to dispel a rumor she was “in negotiation with Executive Constantine for an early departure.”

“I want you to hear it directly from me: this is patently untrue,” said the email, a copy of which was obtained by the Seattle Times.

Constantine’s office said Friday he “has had many conversations with Sheriff Johanknecht and her staff regarding the transition of the Sheriff from an elected to an appointed position.”

Disparate discipline

In February, Johanknecht announced she’d fired longtime Det. Mike Brown for making inappropriate social media posts, including an “All Lives Splatter” meme on the same day a driver hit two protesters on Interstate 5. One of the protesters, Summer Taylor, later died.

In stark contrast, Johanknecht suspended Miller for a day, after he reposted a news story and photo of a group of Black teens beating and stealing the sneakers off a 15-year-old girl on his Facebook page with the comment: “Animals. This is what the inner city gives us these days.”

In a written explanation to Brown, Johanknecht said the disparity in discipline between his and Miller’s case was “because there was not the outrage and extremely harmful, negative and damaging effect to the Sheriff’s Office that your posts and comments created locally and nationwide.”

Miller, who was suspended for a “conduct unbecoming” violation for his post, insisted during an internal investigation that his remark was not racist but intended to comment about the “socioeconomic issues existing in American inner cities” that drive crime.

With tears running down her face, Joseph said Friday she was “outraged” by the light discipline given to Miller.

“Our children are not animals,” she said. “These cops that have this mentality should not be policing us.”

Thomas, who co-founded the police reform group Next Steps Washington after his son was killed, added: “Capt. Miller’s thoughts and feelings are obvious to all of us. He’s a racist. … Is this someone you want with a badge, wearing a uniform, having a gun to shoot and kill and will?”

For more than two years after Dunlap Gittins’ shooting, the Sheriff’s Office’s official statement said Dunlap-Gittens fired at the officers, which was false. Miller, who fired the first shot, also claimed the fleeing teenager had displayed a gun.

But questions over a flawed and inadequate investigation, conflicting statements by the deputies and witnesses, and evidence that Dunlap-Gittens had both arms full of liquor bottles and could not have reached for a weapon as Miller claimed raised serious doubts about the Sheriff’s Office’s account of what happened.

“It shouldn’t have happened, he didn’t do anything,” Dunlap Francois said of her son’s death. “I’m angry and I demand justice. And I will not keep silent.”

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