Civilian head of sheriff oversight quits; neck restraints ‘last straw’

aaaagaitherSeattle Times – by Jennifer Sullivan

Charles Gaither, the first director of King County’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), said he will leave the job on Friday after what he describes as three “difficult” years.

“It’s a difficult environment when you don’t have the capacity to compel change,” he said. “This was not the best recipe for effective civilian oversight in law enforcement.”

Seated in his office Thursday morning, Gaither appeared visibly upset. He only offered bits and pieces of the challenges he said he faced in the job.  

In October 2011,  Gaither was appointed as the director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight after a national search. Gaither is a former investigator with the Los Angeles Police Department.

Gaither said his office is grossly understaffed, making it tough to investigate complaints against the Sheriff’s Office. He said the staff of two was tasked with investigating about 325 complaints last year.

According to its website: “OLEO’s primary role is to accept complaints against the Sheriff’s Office, monitor the investigation and resolution of all complaints, and determine if internal investigations are thorough and objective.”

In 2012, a report prepared by Merrick Bobb, the head of a Los Angeles-based consulting firm who is considered one of the nation’s leading experts on police accountability, found OLEO to be “understaffed to an astonishing degree,” that more resources “should be provided … rapidly” and that the office should have authority to reject inadequate use-of-force reviews.

Gaither said it has been impossible to gain any traction after having to work with three sheriffs in three years and frequent turnover in the internal affairs unit and command staff. Gaither said he had support from former sheriffs Sue Rahr and Steve Strachan, but said he had no real relationship with current Sheriff John Urquhart. Gaither said he has only spoken to Urquhart twice in the last two months.

“We haven’t communicated as often as I would have liked,” Gaither said.

Urquhart declined to comment until an interview Thursday afternoon.

Gaither said that when he tried to make change he got pushback from the King County Council and the union representing deputies. A spokesman for the council has not returned a call for comment.

Gaither said he had also earned an unfair reputation for being “aggressive” and difficult to work with. He said that for more than a year there has been “political maneuvering” to get him to quit.

Though the challenges at work, Gaither said it wasn’t until the Sheriff’s Office implemented a policy to reinstate training for Lateral Vascular Neck Restraints after a 10-year hiatus that he knew he was finished.

“That was the last straw,” he said. “You implement a policy like that?”

Gaither criticized the policy and the tactic, known by some as chokeholds.

The restraint technique involves applying pressure to the sides of the neck, restricting blood flow to the brain. The restraint can render a suspect unconscious in moments without inflicting permanent injury, according to sheriff’s officials.

“The idea of moving me out in one capacity or another has been on the books a long time,” Gaither said. “I’m tired.”

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