King County Sheriff's Office sergeant Patrick "K.C." Saulet, the law enforcement officer who repeatedly threatened to arrest me for taking pictures on a city sidewalk, has been stripped of his stripes in an unrelated incident. The demotion, while recent, was prompted by a complaint that Saulet accosted a family that made a wrong turn into a Metro transit station last December. Saulet reportedly threatened to arrest the parents in the car—including a visibly pregnant woman—and then suggested the couple's 18-month-old daughter would be seized by government authorities, according to a records request filed by The Stranger.
"This is the first time I have taken away someone's stripes," King County Sheriff John Urquhart, who was elected last November, said when reached by phone. The move is "very, very uncommon."
However, the demotion is about more than this one so-called courtesy violation; Saulet has more misconduct complaints than any other officer in the department, and this severe discipline follows years corrective counseling. The decision to demote Saulet from the rank of sergeant to deputy—along with a $15,000 cut to his base salary—indicates that Sheriff Urquhart is willing to issue harsh discipline for cumulative misconduct, rather than judge each case as a stand-alone grievance.
The hard line may be an encouraging new sign for a sheriff's department that received a scathing audit last summer for ignoring misconduct complaints and downplaying discipline. On the flip side, this case may again prove that the powerful county police union can overturn the punishment by appeal, as it has done in the past with Saulet.
In a blistering eight-page demotion letter sent to Saulet on August 7 (download here), Urquahrt notes that "any future conduct violations will be treated very seriously, and depending on the circumstances, could result in termination." It's a must-read letter and about four times longer than typical disciplinary statements from the sheriff. (And for what it's worth, my complaint against Saulet is one of two current pending investigations against him that could result in future misconduct findings.)
Urquhart explains in his edict to Saulet, "it appears you have more allegations against you than any other employee—at least 120," according to county records of internal police investigations. The next closest sergeant has only 23 misconduct allegations. And of Saulet's many complaints, 20 have been sustained. The sheriff's discipline letter presents the bar graph below, which compares Sualet's record to the five other sergeants and six other deputies with the most misconduct allegations:
COMPARING SAULET'S CONDUCT TO OTHER OFFICERS Saulet, represented on the left, has had more complaints than any other officer in the King County Sheriff's Office. The other 11 columns represent the other sergeants and deputies with the next highest level complaints and a sustained complaints against them.
Even though Saulet has worked hard and is liked by colleagues, Urquhart adds, "the negative side of your time in the Sheriff's Office... significantly outweighs your positive contributions." Saulet's numerous past misconduct complaints resolved with recommendations for counseling, such as official Performance Improvement Plans and Training Plans, including those in 2001, 2003, 2011. In a 2008 reprimand, Saulet was also demoted, but, due to the police union's appeal by arbitration, he was later restored to the rank of sergeant on the grounds that the investigation lacked sufficient evidence. Even in that case, the arbiter noted that Saulet must still "take to heart the reality that he is on the edge of when enough will be enough."
During our phone interview, I asked Urquhart if he was taking a new tack by applying discipline cumulatively, instead of just treating the incident as a one-off example of rude policing. "Taken in and of itself, this is a courtesy complaint," Urquhart said, "but there is a pattern and history with this individual that is pretty significant." He argues that there's precedent for applying what's called progressive discipline—the more complaints against an officer, the greater the penalty—but he predicts that the King County Police Officer's guild will fight the decision. "My assumption is that they will, [but] I don't speak for the guild," Urquhart says.
A phone call to the King County Police Officers Guild was not returned this afternoon, but the guild did defend Saulet in a disciplinary hearing with the sheriff earlier this year.
During an investigation into the December 9 complaint, police union president Steve Eggert backed up Saulet, saying his handling of the couple was appropriate. As Urquhart's letter quotes Eggart as saying, "sometimes we need to take a strong stand, even harsh, with people and raise our voice to get compliance."
The event unfolded like this: On December 9, 2012, Louis Landry, a seven-year veteran who served in Iraq, followed errant directions from a GPS system and drove into an off-limits area of the Conventional Place transit station with his seven-month-pregnant wife in the passenger seat and his 18-month-old daughter in the back. According to Landry, they were stopped by a hostile Sergeant Saulet, who reportedly told the him, "I could send you to jail. I could send your wife to jail. I could even take away your daughter." Saulet reportedly added, "You can go to jail because of this, so does [sic] your wife and your child can be taken by the government."
Saulet also reportedly told him to "man up a little bit more" and said he was irresponsible as "head of the family."
Accompanied by his union representative, Saulet claimed he didn't make an arrest threat. But the sheriff's letter states: "I found Mr. Landry's statement far more persuasive than your denial." Urquhart added that a citizen should not have to listen to an officer "comment on his manhood, counsel him on his family or parental responsibility, or otherwise treat him and his spouse in a manner that is condescending and sexist."
After an investigation of the incident, and a recommendation of demotion by Chief Deputy Anne Kirkpatrick, Urquhart says that Saulet should be reduced to deputy. He also dismisses the union's claims that Saulet's behavior was appropriate, explaining in his letter that Mr. Landry "inadvertently and understandably entered an off-limits area" and he was "by all accounts... cooperative."
Urquhart's letter continues: "Regardless of your intentions, you dealt with the Landrys in a manner that was discourteous and demeaning; that escalated or threatened to escalate a situation for no apparent reason; that reflects poorly on you and your organization; and that otherwise fell well short of the professionalism we (and the community we serve) expect of all of our officers and particularly those who, like you, enjoy supervisory authority."
Urquhart says that Saulet is back on the streets today after a stint on administrative leave. And while the police union may ultimately appeal his demotion, for now, Saulet has been removed from Metro transit duty, lost his sergeant stripes, and is assigned to patrol duty in northeast King County where he responds to 911 calls.
Back on duty, it's possible Saulet could do to others what he did to me and that family: Threaten people with arrest and escalate what should be a normal encounter into a hostile confrontation. Still, I'm encouraged that Urquhart seems to be doing exactly the right thing: He's looking at an officer's complete record. To me, it seems unlikely that Saulet could have been fired for this incident. He didn't violate anyone's constitutional rights or inflict bodily harm. Historically in this situation, the department would—and I am sure the union will argue that it must—simply send Saulet back to for more sensitivity training. But that training has failed in the past, and there's no indication that it will magically work now. A demotion is likely the most that can be expected. And, if the demotion holds, then there are grounds to fire Saulet if another complaint is sustained against him. Perhaps my complaint, perhaps another (as I mentioned earlier, there are two active complaints pending against him). Either way, another sustained complaint seems inevitable at this point and it should be sufficient to crowbar him off the force permanently.