Sheriff vows changes after probe of shooting faulted
In an appearance before the Metropolitan King County Council, Sheriff John Urquhart spelled out his plans to address a flawed investigation into the shooting that left an Auburn-area man severely injured and cost the county $3 million.
Seattle Times staff reporter
King County Sheriff John Urquhart pledged Wednesday to change the way his office investigates shootings by deputies after the Metropolitan King County Council heard a highly critical, independent report on a man who was shot 16 times by a deputy and a state corrections officer.
The county recently agreed to pay a $3 million settlement to the man, Dustin Theoharis, 30, who is also seeking an additional $20 million from the state.
Speaking at a special meeting of the council, Urquhart said the King County Sheriff’s Office will now launch separate, parallel administrative reviews, coupled with traditional criminal investigations, whenever a deputy shoots someone in order to identify any policy or training issues.
The Administrative Review Team (ART) will have the authority to refer violations to the Internal Investigations Unit, Urquhart said.
He said he had decided that launching the team represented the best practice, even though King County prosecutors have long advised his office to hold off on administrative reviews so as not to taint criminal investigations.
He also said he will push for the authority to obtain taped and written statements from deputies immediately after a deputy-involved shooting. Currently, that is not allowed in the first 72 hours, according to a contract with the union representing deputies.
“I am not going to back down on that,” Urquhart said, vowing to take the issue to arbitration if can’t be resolved in current contract talks with the union.
His comments came after two representatives of a Los Angeles-based nonprofit, the Police Assessment Resource Center (PARC), presented a 66-page report that faulted the Sheriff’s Office for the way it gathered information and evidence in the shooting of Theoharis in an Auburn-area home on Feb. 11, 2012.
PARC is headed by Merrick Bobb, the court-appointed monitor overseeing reforms to curtail excessive force in the Seattle Police Department. The report concluded the shooting appeared to be lawful and within policy.
“Nonetheless, we were deeply troubled by serious deficiencies in the underlying investigation and the apparent unwillingness of KCSO (Sheriff's Office) to question its own officers about the use of deadly force once it appeared that they have not committed a crime,” the report said.
The two officers involved were given a month to provide written accounts of the shooting, physical evidence was overlooked or moved, witness interviews were not thorough and inconsistencies were not adequately addressed, according to the report commissioned for about $25,000 by Charles Gaither, the civilian director of the county Office of Law Enforcement Oversight.
Theoharis was unarmed and in bed when he was shot. He suffered 16 gunshot wounds, according to medical records cited by one of his attorneys.
The two officers were looking for another resident of the home, a man sought in connection with a Department of Corrections (DOC) probation violation.
Theoharis, then 29, was not a suspect, did not display a weapon and did not have access to a weapon when the officers woke him, his attorneys said in a statement announcing the settlement.
The two officers, Deputy Aaron Thompson and DOC specialist Kristopher Rongen, said they believed Theoharis posed a threat.
“Specialist Rongen and Detective Thompson said that they identified themselves, gave Mr. Theoharis commands that he did not comply with, that he said he had guns, and that it appeared that he was reaching for one,” according to a report by the sheriff’s shooting review board.
In separate reviews, the Sheriff’s Office and the DOC found the shooting to be justified and the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office found no basis to file criminal charges.
On Wednesday, Theoharis’ attorneys delivered a claim to the state, seeking $20 million in damages.
If the claim isn’t settled, Theoharis will file a civil-rights suit in federal court, according to one of his attorneys, Erik Heipt, of Seattle, who asserted the DOC is most culpable.
The DOC, in a written statement, said, “We have already conducted a thorough review and determined that the specialist used appropriate force and followed the proper procedures in a dangerous situation. We will wait until after the claim is resolved to discuss specific details.”
Urquhart, who became sheriff in November after being elected, ordered additional training for detectives after the shooting, and curtailed similar operations with the DOC.
In a series of reviews, the Sheriff’s Office found fault with the decision-making by Thompson and Rongen that led up to the confrontation, including not contacting a supervisor for advice.
Thompson was found to have violated department policies, but Urquhart lifted that finding.
Urquhart told the council Wednesday he decided Thompson was being made a scapegoat as a “political move” to “take the heat off” command staff at the time.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org
On Twitter @stevemiletich