By GREGORY ROBERTS
King County has reached tentative agreement on a new labor contract with sheriff's deputies that would finally clear the way to establishing civilian oversight of the Sheriff's Office, County Executive Ron Sims said Monday.
But the County Council member who co-sponsored the 2006 legislation creating the oversight framework isn't ready to declare victory.
"It sounds like we're getting there," Councilman Bob Ferguson, D-Seattle, said. "But the devil's in the details."
The Office of Law Enforcement Oversight has not been activated because it would affect disciplinary procedures outlined in the prevailing contract with the deputies, and any changes to those procedures were subject to collective bargaining with the deputies' union.
The tentative deal on oversight differs from the legislation, a Sims spokeswoman said, but she was unable to provide more information before the deputies' union submits the deal to its membership for ratification. Any contract ultimately must be approved by the council as well.
The tentative labor agreement also includes pay raises for deputies in each of its five years, Sims' office said.
The 2006 legislation gives the oversight agency the authority to field complaints from the public about sheriff's deputies, to review Sheriff Sue Rahr's response to the complaints and to make suggestions to her about how to deal with them. Currently, complaints from citizens are handled within the Sheriff's Office.
Establishing civilian oversight of the Sheriff's Office was a key recommendation of the blue-ribbon panel appointed in 2006 by Sims, the council and then-Prosecutor Norm Maleng to investigate how the sheriff responds to citizen complaints. The panel was formed in reaction to "Conduct Unbecoming," a Seattle P-I series that reported on wrongdoing by deputies and lax internal discipline.
Other panel recommendations also have been put on hold pending the contract negotiations, including applying new performance standards and evaluations for deputies and setting up an "early intervention system" that would be triggered when problems first surface.
Rahr has moved ahead with reforms not restrained by the labor contract, such as posting complaint forms and procedures at the sheriff's web site (www.kingcounty.gov/safety/sheriff/), stressing accountability within the department, upgrading supervision and training and forming precinct-level citizens advisory committees.
As for the tentative deal with the deputies, a Rahr spokesman said, "We're very happy to have this finally settled," although he noted the union has yet to vote on it.
Deputies' union president Steve Eggert could not be reached for comment.
Under the provisions of the 2006 legislation:
# The oversight office will report directly to the council. Sims will nominate a full-time director, who will serve a four-year term, subject to council approval,
# The office can respond immediately to homicides or other "critical incidents," dispatching observers to the crime scene.
# A panel of 11 citizen volunteers will advise the director on issues of misconduct by deputies and will help inform the public about the office's work. Sims will appoint the members, subject to council confirmation.
# The sheriff and the oversight director will set up a voluntary procedure for mediation of citizen complaints about deputies..
# The county auditor will review the oversight agency and report regularly to the council.
The county has set aside $425,000 in its 2008 budget for an oversight office with a director and three staff members.
The Sheriff's Office polices the unincorporated areas of King County and also provides law enforcement by contract to a dozen suburban cities, the Metro bus system and some other agencies. It employs 1,150 people, including 650 deputies, and functions with an annual budget of $150 million.
The city of Seattle operates its own oversight system for its police department. A civilian director heads the Office of Professional Accountability, which includes a team of police officers who investigate complaints of misconduct. The director forwards the office's findings to the chief, who makes the final decision on discipline.
The system also includes a civilian auditor who reviews investigations for thoroughness and fairness and who looks for trends that might warrant remedial training. In addition, a three-member civilian review board examines a portion of closed misconduct cases and issues public reports on how the department handles internal investigations.
P-I reporter Scott Gutierrez contributed to this story.