There’s a new Sheriff in town: Mitzi Johanknecht on developing vibrant communities for the future

by Sarah Toce

Newly-elected King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht self-professes she’s never had a calendar as full as the one she’s currently operating. ‘My schedule is really interesting now,’ she tells me as we sit in her office at the King County Courthouse building just north of Pioneer Square. ‘I’ve never had a calendar look that red before.’

Johanknecht, 58, is seated squarely in the center of the 1,000-person law enforcement agency previously spearheaded by former King County Sheriff John Urquhart, who held the office since 2012. The transition was not an easy one; he still refuses to speak to her and offered no assistance leading up to the change in post. As such, Johanknecht has had to steadily rely on her 33 years’ experience working in the Sheriff’s Office prior to the election in order to fill in the blanks. She most recently served as commander of Precinct 4 in Burien.

‘Whether people know it or not, we do a lot of law enforcement in the City of Seattle because we have both Metro and Sound Transit,’ she says. ‘With that comes a lot of proactive work as it relates to taking care of people in case there’s a domestic or international terrorist threat. It’s actually a lot to think about with the tunnel and everything else we have going on in Seattle. We do a lot of civil process work – such as traditional sheriff’s functions, like evictions.’

The new position is ‘exciting’ for Johanknecht, who ran her campaign on the pillars of transparency and integrity. She says she’s ‘drinking from the fire hose’ as she prepares to navigate the intricacies of the job.

When asked what she hopes to accomplish right off the bat, she says there are so many things, but ‘it’s about pacing.’

‘That’s the first thing to think about,’ she says. Her immediate priorities include community outreach in order to connect and work with all communities and cultures ‘and making sure that they know their Sheriff’s connected to them and that their Sheriff’s office is working for them the best they can.’ Another equally important priority for Johanknecht is developing a working strategic plan so that decision-making comes through filters involving the community as well as government officials. The intention is to help with healing and build a department ready for the future.

Johanknecht says she has a clear goal to meet residents where they are and to incorporate them into the decision-making processes that go along with running their communities. Her expectation is to invite everyone to the table and ask them to participate as best they can, however they can.

‘What we have done in the past is go and talk at communities instead of listening,’ she says. ‘I think there’s so much I can learn from those communities that feel disenfranchised or not connected. It’s our responsibility [in this office] to take the first step and to reach out and not ever give up. I just know from my own life that when there’s fear about what law enforcement may do to a particular community that’s based on actual fact and history, that it’s our responsibility to overcome it.’

She says her office will responsibly handle pressure regarding federal immigration reform.

‘It’s a timely question,’ she says. ‘Yesterday, myself and my undersheriff went and met with the ACLU. We’ve had two or three meetings to see where we can align and yesterday’s topic was immigration. Bullet point by bullet point I was able to say we concur. We’re fully in support of their work. Our hands are busy doing what we do as it relates to public safety and community protection. That community that we protect includes everyone. I have never had to worry about somebody’s immigration status to do my work. It’s really important to me that we’re a place where people can come and feel safe reporting crime and in that way we can protect them from harm and do the right thing.’

Johanknecht says law enforcement needs to be re-imagined. ‘Instead of being reactive so much, we need to – with the community’s help – re-imagine and try to get ahead and think beyond the moment we’re in and be better forward-looking. Planning ahead and being fully agile and ready to adjust. The type of person we hire to be a cop will change over time – certainly since 33 years ago when I started this work.’

On the subject of whether Johanknecht has faced any backlash from the rural areas of King County for being an open lesbian, she says no. ‘I was totally embraced wherever I went throughout King County – and across the political spectrum.’

When asked what Johanknecht might say if she could talk to her five-year-old self about what she’s doing now, she answers: ‘I never would have imagined that I’d be in this place, but I think I am right where I am supposed to be. I go back and think about the five-year-old kid who was, at the time, my folks lived in Arbor Heights in a little small house there with all five of their kids, and one year for Christmas I got a pedal tractor. So I think about the kid that was out there in the winter with a scarf on tied under my chin and a plastic Army helmet riding my pedal tractor around.’

Johanknecht currently resides in West Seattle with her wife, Maureen Warren. The pair, set up by friends back in 2001, share a 34-year-old daughter named Sydney.

This article was also printed in the Seattle Gay News

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