This year’s election for King County Prosecutor was shaping up to be a test of whether our region would join the national trend of electing a progressive prosecutor over the objections of establishment Democrats and well-funded police unions – but then Wednesday morning happened. That’s when Stephan Thomas dropped out of the race, and along with him went the hope of electing a candidate promising to use the prosecutor’s office to overhaul the criminal punishment system.
On his campaign website, Thomas stressed the value of keeping the prosecutor’s office independent from the cops, saying he’d refuse endorsements from law enforcement groups and never build cases on testimony from cops who “commit misconduct.”
The lack of someone in the field taking that approach should worry anyone concerned about police accountability, particularly after Democrats in Olympia backslid on the issue earlier this year.
The websites for the two remaining candidates – Federal Way Mayor Jim Ferrell and Leesa Manion, longtime chief of staff for outgoing King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg – did not advertise the kind of prosecutorial independence Thomas was pushing as a pillar of his campaign, so I called them up to see where they stood. The answers from these veteran prosecutors were, um, enlightening to say the least.
Refusing police endorsements
Demonstrating independence from law enforcement on the campaign trail would be an easy step to take in building trust with over-policed communities critical of traditionally cozy relationships between prosecutors and the cops they rely on in court. In general, it would be cool if the person responsible for investigating killer cops could get that job without relying on political support from them.
In a phone interview, Ferrell seemed to struggle with this concept. Touting his endorsement from the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), he remained unapologetically proud to stand as the candidate of choice for officers who just can’t seem to stop disproportionately beating up Black and brown people. When pressed on whether he felt concerned about taking support from a union notorious for undermining attempts at accountability, he saw no contradiction in accepting the endorsement while also proclaiming a “zero tolerance” approach to officer misconduct. I pointed out that SPOG President Mike Solan carried a lot of political baggage, including spreading conspiracies about the insurrection, but Ferrell refused to echo the criticism he said Solan receives from others for being a “fierce advocate for his fellow officers.”
By contrast, Manion said she intentionally chose not to seek endorsements from police unions.
That hasn’t stopped her, however, from prominently displaying on her campaign’s homepage endorsements from former Seattle Police Department Chief Carmen Best and former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr. Manion defended those endorsements, saying she carefully selected people who demonstrated a track record of “seeing the value of reform” and “addressing the root causes of crime.”
Whether Seattle voters with first-hand experience of Chief Best’s “reformed” officers will agree with that characterization of her legacy remains to be seen.
Keeping bad cops out of the courtroom
Since the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Brady v. Maryland, prosecutors have been forced to keep lists of cops convicted of lying on the job and to disclose records of officer misconduct in cases where they call those officers to testify.
In response to the failures of these so-called Brady lists, reform advocates have been pushing prosecutors to stop relying on testimony from those same cops during trials at all. In his platform, Thomas took that notion a step further and extended the ban on testifying to officers who had simply “committed misconduct.” Since the King County Prosecutor’s Office already avoids calling up officers who have been found guilty of misconduct, the natural next step for reform advocates is to push for prosecutors to treat cops under investigation for lying or abusing their power the same way.
Again, the concept here is simple: Let’s not put someone away for years based on testimony from crooked cops. While both Manion and Ferrell expressed unqualified support for refusing to rely on testimony from officers on King County’s Brady list, they wavered on prohibiting testimony from officers under investigation for misconduct.
Of the two career prosecutors, Manion was much more sympathetic to this position, even if she declined to embrace a hard-and-fast rule that could serve as a deterrent to police misconduct. She said that under her leadership, prosecutors would “examine the strength of their case in total” if they discovered that an officer scheduled to testify was facing a pending allegation of misconduct. According to Manion, that “examination” could result in anything from deciding to drop the prosecution entirely if the problematic officer’s testimony was foundational to the case, or pressing forward without that officer’s testimony.
Ferrell sounded far more suspicious of this proposal. He argued that defendants facing violent crime charges would file frivolous complaints against otherwise angelic officers simply to force the judge to throw out the cop’s testimony. This objection is an absurd hypothetical because the timing of such a complaint would make it obvious that the allegation was frivolous.
On the other hand, the issue of how to handle cops with pending allegations of misconduct against them is very real — people filed thousands of officer misconduct complaints during the 2020 protests alone. During the interview, he softened his hard-line position by claiming he’d also engage in a case-by-case review of pending misconduct allegations, but he remained skeptical of possibly compromising a prosecution just because a cop might, maybe, someday later be determined to be a liar or an abuser of authority.
There’s still time left, lefties
Leslie Cushman of the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability, an organization run by family members who have lost loved ones to police violence, said in a statement that the group is hopeful that the next King County Prosecutor will bring greater transparency to how the office handles officers facing misconduct allegations. After years of lobbying for independent investigations into officers’ use of force, they say the way prosecutors treat law enforcement directly affects how the community views the credibility of the system as a whole.
If reading this recap of mealy promises to remain “open to discussion” on issues of basic human rights left them or anyone else feeling uninspired, they’re not alone. Prior to suspending his campaign, Thomas had raked in more than $64,000 in donations — good for a close second in the field. That fundraising success indicates a significant appetite for someone willing to push the envelope, and King County Democrats Chair Shasti Conrad encouraged anyone dismayed by Thomas’s exit to strongly consider jumping in the race. The political consultants I spoke with weren’t aware of anyone waiting in the wings to take up the mantle of progressive prosecutor, but there’s still a month left for someone to move into a wide-open progressive lane before the filing deadline on May 20th.