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Urquhart says he is best for King County Sheriff
For many in King County, when news broke about a major event and anything involving the King County Sheriff’s Office, the name of John Urquhart was often heard. Urquhart was the longtime Public Information Officer for the KCSO.
Just last year he announced his retirement after 24 years with the Sheriff’s Office and 36 years as a police officer. Earlier this year, in April, he announced his run for the Sheriff’s position, currently filled by interim Sheriff Steve Strachan, who was appointed to the position after Sheriff Sue Rahr accepted a new position.
“I started getting calls from people inside the sheriff’s department of, really, all ranks. Civilians up through commanders, and they said, John you need to run for sheriff,” said Urquhart, who has lived on Mercer Island for over 30 years. He said he felt this is a crucial time for the department.
“Policing in the Northwest is at a crossroads, especially the Sheriff’s Office. If you look at what’s happening in the Seattle Police Department, they lost the support of the communities where they police. I don’t want the Sheriff’s Office to end up in the same place.”
Urquhart went on: “Primarily with the Sheriff’s department, it’s overuse of force issues and how we respond to that. In police work, we call it going hands-on — force is inevitable. We will use force of one degree or another, but what is important is how we respond to that and how we let the community know that we take it seriously and that we are looking into each and every case. We have not been doing a very good job of that, and that’s what I want to fix.”
Urquhart actually came to police work as a second career, after owning a business in the area prior to joining the force.
“I came out of the school of business at the University of Washington, I owned a business and I had 55-60 employees at four locations. I sold that and took some time off and then went to work full time with the Sheriff’s Office.
“[I have] a much more varied background than pretty much anyone in law enforcement, and that’s a distinct advantage when I get in there,” he said.
Urquhart feels one of the biggest challenges for the department right now comes back to the public, and the way the department works with them.
“The biggest challenge facing the Sheriff’s department is how do we reassure the community,” he said. “There is so much in the news right now that leads the public not to trust us. Part of that is the proliferation of cameras, video cameras in police cars, cell phone cameras, so they see things that are going on now that they haven’t seen before. They may not understand them and sometimes they are things that shouldn’t be happening. It’s a question of either maintaining the trust in police or putting the trust in the police. I want to make sure that we have a police department that isn’t too militaristic; we’ve seen that lately in the black uniforms they are wearing and carrying around rifles all the time in downtown Seattle in urban areas. The public does not want police to be like the military. They don’t want to feel like we are an occupying force in our neighborhoods. I want to make sure that doesn’t happen as well and that can only happen with good strong leadership starting at the top and working its way down through the organization.”
Over the last several years, largely thanks to the recession, the King County government’s budget has been slashed, including large portions of the Sheriff’s office. Despite the cuts, Urquhart feels there are still ways to work with what is available, as well as working with other local agencies.
“The first thing is there is not enough money, especially in government,” he said. “Cities don’t have enough money and the counties have even less. That means I have to manage the resources I do have very, very well. But I also have to be able to convince the elected leaders, the county executive and the county council, that funds are needed to maintain public safety in King County. That can be a battle. What I don’t want to do is fight with social service agencies over what money is available. I’d rather go hand in hand with them and go to the County Council and the executive and explain why we each need more money rather than fighting each other for it. They are just as important to the community and to keep the community safe as we are. We are equal partners in keeping communities safe and we shouldn’t fight over the few dollars that are there, even though that has happened in the past.”
Some of Urquhart’s top priorities if elected include creating a use of force review board, to help the department look at the force being used by officers and makes changes as needed.
“One of the things that I want to do, other than what we’ve talked about, if elected, I want to have a use of force review board. We don’t have that now,” he said. “I want to train our sergeants and I want to establish a use of force review board that we can look at uses of force to determine if we need to retrain a deputy or is there a way the use of force could have been avoided, including deescalation, or do we need to retrain the whole department.”
Another goal is to reestablish the domestic violence unit that was cut in 2010 because of funding.
“For years we had a unit that had specially trained detectives dedicated to the follow up investigation. Here’s why that is so important, besides the fact it’s a horrific crime, but often times the victim recants or won’t testify. Those cases are still prosecutable if you can forward a good case to the prosecutors office and that means you need dedicated detectives who can get the medical reports and who have time to do all that so they can quickly get the completed case to the prosecutor’s office,” said Urquhart. He said he believes the unit, even with the department’s tight budget, is a possibility without more funding, but that it wasn’t a priority.
“All those investigations that were being done by specialized detectives are now being done by detectives who will be investigating a shoplifting or car theft one minute and a domestic violence the next,” he explained. “It was because of budget cuts and it was a lack of priority I think. I think we can still do it within the budget, but once I convince the county executive how important this is I think we can get it refunded.”
Urquhart would also like to see a higher standard for following internal policies.
“I want to make sure that our policies are followed internally. In 2011 there were four officer involved shootings that were fatal. There is an internal policy that says there has to be a review within 30 days of the inquest or the investigation. Those first shootings did not go in front of a review board until a year later – in two cases a year later. The only reason the shooting review boards were held at all is because I made a campaign issue out of it. The first one was held on April 23, I announced on April 24 and the next three were held within 10 days. That’s not slipping between the cracks, thats policy that these things aren’t important. They have to follow that policy. If a line deputy didn’t follow a policy like that he’d be disciplined. In this case it was a division officer who let that and he was not disciplined, in fact he was promoted. You can’t have that. That doesn’t reassure the public in any way, shape or form.”
A big part, Urquhart said, is having leaders at every level of the Sheriff’s Office, not just in the top position.
“There has to be an insistence of leadership throughout the organization,” he said.
Though there are many cities around the county, like Kirkland, which has it’s own police force, the Sheriff’s department is still one which can and will impact their lives.
“People often ask me, why should I care about the sheriff’s office? You should care because we are all over King County. At the very least our Metro transit unit and our Sound Transit unit are the ones on the buses, in the park and rides in the bus shelters,” he said. “Anytime a home is burglarized and police are searching for the suspect in the area, it’s the KCSO helicopter buzzing overhead. The Sheriff’s Office is also which deals with evictions and notifications. It’s also the Sheriff’s search and rescue team who look for lost or missing hikers in the Cascades, no matter which city they live in.”
Urquhart has also said, despite the Sheriff’s role as a nonpartisan, he’s willing to answer questions when people ask him about topics, like marijuana.
“Well people want to know where you stand on issues and what your values are,” he said. “It’s as simple as that. When people ask me I don’t care what the question is, I will answer. If I lose because of that, so be it. If I can votes for that, that’s great, but I’m true to myself.”
To learn more about Urquhart’s race for Sheriff, visit the website www.johnforsheriff.com. To learn more about the Sheriff’s Office visit www.kingcounty.gov/safety/sheriff.aspx.