by Jack Mayne
John Urquhart, 64, wants to trade in his sergeant’s stripes for the four stars of the elected sheriff of King County and to command the 1,000 people, including 600 sworn officers, of what has been called one of the best large police agencies in the state.
Urquhart is probably better known by the Seattle area media and police news buffs than the general public because he spent the past 10 years as the department’s public information officer, charged with telling reporters and the where, when and why of crime in the county.
So why does he want the top job?
“I retired in January after . . . 24 years with the Sheriff’s office.” Urquhart says. “I had no intention of running. But I started getting calls from people inside the Sheriff’s office and in all ranks from civilians up to commanders. They said, ‘this new guy is not working out. He is taking us down the wrong road and we think you ought to run for sheriff.”
He is referring to Sheriff Steve Strachan (pronounced “Stran”) who was appointed sheriff in April 2012 after serving as chief deputy under Sheriff Sue Rahr. The race for both men is for the final year of Rahr’s four-year term. The winner will have to seek a full term in 2013.
Urquhart said at first he would not run, but then says he started looking into it.
“I came to the conclusion that they were right. He (Strachan) is taking us down the road where we are going to end up in the same position that the Seattle Police Department is in where they have lost the support of the communities they police.”
He announced for sheriff on April 24.
Strachan ‘is a climber’
Urquhart says that even before Strachan started at King County, while he was wrapping up his job as chief of police in Kent, then Sheriff Sue Rahr sent all deputies an e-mail that said that Strachan would be running the day-to-day operations of the office. Virtually every reference in the department’s operations manual regarding actions that would be taken by the sheriff was changed to read “deputy chief.”
He says that Rahr “hated campaigning” and calling people for campaign donations and expressed interest in leaving the department even before the 2009 election (where she was reelected overwhelmingly). The next year she reached out to Strachan and hired him effective in 2011.
Rahr “was clearly looking for another job, she put him in charge.” When she retired to become the director of the state Criminal Justice Training Commission, the King County Council unanimously appointed Strachan.
Urquhart says Strachan had applied for four police chief jobs prior to getting hired by Rahr.
“He is a climber,” he says.
During 2011, the department had four officer related shootings, two of which were fatal, he says.
“The policy manual says a there has to be a shooting review board within 30 days of the inquest and 30 of the completion of the investigation. This is all on his watch. Those shooting review boards weren’t held, in two cases, until over a year later, in the other two cases until well over six months later.
“They weren’t held until I made a campaign issue of it in April.”
Urquhart charges that Strachan started right after he became chief deputy to decimate internal investigations.
“We have always had a captain and a clerk and three detective sergeants in there, Urquhart says. “He cut (the sergeants) down to two and tried to get rid of the captain and have those two detectives report directly to him and get rid of the clerk. He took all these investigations and shipped them down to the precincts for patrol sergeants to investigate. Patrol sergeants would be investigating their peers and they don’t have the expertise, the time, the training, the equipment to do those kinds of investigations.”
The most recent departmental audit said, “there over a hundred citizen complaints that they cannot find because they weren’t tracked – they went down to the precincts to the patrol sergeants and they weren’t tracked,” Urquhart says. “It is not accurate (for Strachan) to say that my complaints are stuff that Sue Rahr did. He likes to blame me because I was down there for 10 years. I was a sergeant. I was a policy advisor but I was not a policy maker. I couldn’t change anything.
“Now we have gotten these two audits that are just devastating,” he says. “The first audit talks about the culture of management in the Sheriff’s office that doesn’t take discipline seriously. The audit talks about two uses of force complaints that went up to internal investigations in 2011. Seattle had 159 that went to internal investigations, Portland had 47, we only had two because they are not looked at, they just went up the chain and they disappear somewhere.
“It doesn’t mean that (deputies) are doing something wrong,” he says. “Neither audit talks about the men and women on the street, it talks about management only. But how can the public have confidence in what the deputies are doing if there is an allegation or if the deputies use force, they shoot somebody or something like that if we don’t investigate them at the management level?”
Urquhart wants to establish a policy review board “so we can look at training issues to see if we need to retrain the deputy or we need to retrain the department or is there a way we can counsel this guy that if you had done something else, if you had used a different tactic, perhaps you wouldn’t have had to use force at all.”
“We don’t do that now. The audit said exactly the same thing: you need a use of force board because that is best practice across the country.”
Strachan, says Urquhart, has not made “one change in the 20 months he has been running the department. He says ‘look at my business plan, all of my changes I am going to do are in the business plan.’ You don’t need a business plan, it is fluff, it is pictures and fluff and there is not one concrete proposal that he has in the business plan – that he wrote – to change the sheriff’s office, to address these issues. The term ‘investigation’ is in the business plan three times, the term internal is in the business plan twice but they are never in the same sentence.”
The real issue is not budget cuts, but how the county will police the unincorporated areas, Urquhart says.
“Does the county owe Vashon Island police services?” he asks. “Of course, even though it is a money loser. I don’t think you can look at Skyway or Vashon by themselves, we have to look at all of unincorporated King County. People ask how are you going to fight the County Council, or the executive, for money. I say that I am not going to fight with them at all – at least not publicly. I think it is counter productive. I have no problem with pounding on the desk behind closed doors.
“I am also not going to fight with the social providers like we have before. They are just as important to public safety as (the Sheriff’s Department is).
“What is most important is that I am running a Sheriff’s Department that is fiscally prudent, that understands overtime.”
“I need to know that so I can go to the County Council and say we need to hire more people rather than pay this overtime,” Urquhart says.
He says the first thing he will do if he is elected will be to “beef up internal security to where it needs to be and start a use of force review board.”
“Over 50 percent of our business comes from contracts, that is a very good thing for the contracts and it is a very good thing for the department because of economies of scale (and) 50 percent of the people who work for us are in contracts,” he says. “Half of our budget comes from contract customers. The other half is from unincorporated King County, which is about 250,000 people.”
The candidate says he solidly supports the department’s contracting with cities and other jurisdictions (Muckleshoot tribe, Metro Transit, King County Airport).
“A city gets the best, we are a good police department,” Urquhart says. “From a homicide standpoint, from a major accident standpoint, from the point they don’t have to negotiate contracts, they don’t have union issues, they don’t have lawsuit issues, they don’t have use of force issues. We (Sheriff’s department) absorbs all of that,” he says. “They get the benefits of a big police department.”
But Urquhart charges that Strachan has done away with the precinct system so there is “this big pool of deputies that now are sent all over the county wherever they need them because we have established ‘shift minimums,’ He did this because he promised (County Executive) Dow Constantine he would reduce overtime.”
Urquhart says cancelling the precinct “zone plan” caused reduction in the minimum number of officers on each shift. That change also did away with roll calls “so that a sergeant hardly ever sees the deputies” because deputies go directly to work wherever they are assigned,”
Further, Urquhart says Strachan also reduced the number of sergeants, again to save on overtime. Fewer people mean less need to have overtime officers fill for those sick or attending court, on vacation, etc.
Manpower does not correlate with actual policing needs of a community, he says, pointing to the unincorporated Skyway area west of Renton and south of Seattle.
“There are 15,000 people and, for 22 years, there were two deputies 24 hours a day,” he says.
The primary reason is for backup because it is isolated from other areas of unincorporated King County and a second deputy is needed for backup because of the violent nature of the area.
Skyway has the second highest number of calls of any area of King County, Urquhart says and White Center has the most calls for police service.
“So what he (Strachan) did to cut overtime was eliminate all deputies in Skyway from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m., Urquhart says.
“A lot of calls in the Skyway area are dual response: the fire department will go within two blocks but won’t go the rest of the way until (deputies) make sure it is safe. So the deputies were coming from White Center (and) the fire department was waiting 20 minutes sometimes, according to the fire chief, to get a deputy. Response time matters. People die, people bleed out, they get away.”
The candidate claims it was because he made it a campaign issue that got the Skyway deputies restored to two for each shift.
“It is expensive to do that, but you just have to do it.” Urquhart said.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We’ll be posting a profile on Sheriff Steve Strachan, so check back again soon.