Tuesday, April 13, 2021
April 13, 2021

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King County Sheriff’s captain suspended for a day for offensive Facebook post about Black teens

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SEATTLE — A member of King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht’s command staff, who was involved in the controversial 2017 shooting death of a 17-year-old Black teen in Des Moines during a misguided sting operation, was suspended for a day without pay after a colleague complained Capt. Todd Miller had made a “very offensive and racist” Facebook post.

Miller was found to have engaged in “conduct unbecoming” of the Sheriff’s Office when he reposted a news article and photo of a group of Black teens beating and stealing the sneakers off a 15-year-old girl on a Brooklyn sidewalk last March on his Facebook page April 21, with the comment: “Animals. This is what the inner city gives us these days.”

Miller insisted that his comment was not racist and was intended to comment about the “socio-economic issues existing in American inner cities” that drive crime, according to internal investigation documents obtained by The Seattle Times. He acknowledged, however, that others might see his comments differently.

During an interview last May, sheriff’s Internal Affairs Unit Sgt. Tim Meyer noted “a historical context of the word ‘animal’ … especially with persons from the African American community” and wondered whether Miller ever considered it.

“I make no mention of race here,” Miller responded. “That’s an implication that others are drawing from what’s said there. … My intent is not to say that, in some way, they’re racial savages, anything like that. My intent is to draw a correlation with that behavior.”

Miller, who has a degree in sociology, said his comments were aimed at “the kind of academic, sociological behavioral aspect of this.

“Could I potentially define it better, yeah, in hindsight, yes,” but added that he is “not going to be able to please everyone out there with perfectly pristine speech.”

A message seeking comment from Miller through the Sheriff’s Office public information officer was not returned Tuesday.

Miller’s discipline of a single day off work stood in stark contrast with the sheriff’s decision to fire Deputy Michael Brown for insensitive posts about the death of a Black Lives Matter protester.

The sheriff sustained a finding of misconduct relating to Miller’s behavior, which Johanknecht found had “serious violations of the core values” of the Sheriff’s Office as it pertains to actions that diminish public respect or confidence. Miller was also found to have violated the office’s social media policy. He was exonerated of allegations that he engaged in discrimination, harassment, incivility or bigotry because the post was made when he was off-duty.

“As written your use of the word ‘animals’ is most reasonably interpreted to be a statement about the people involved, which includes their race,” Johanknecht wrote in findings dated Feb. 11.

“The use of that word ‘animals’ in connection with a post depicting black people sends the offensive message and negative reference to all black people whether living in the inner-city or not,” the sheriff wrote.

“I do not dispute your assertion that you did not intend to make a negative racial comment about black people and that this was a mistake on your part,” Johanknecht said. “It was poor judgment given your rank, level of command and knowledge of the current social climate regarding racial inequity and social justice.”

The complaint against Miller was made last April by a retired 30-year sheriff’s deputy who now works as a county marshal. The complainant’s identity was redacted from the documents provided through public disclosure.

In a written complaint, the retired deputy said he found the comments Miller made to the post “very offensive and racist.”

“In an era where mistrust of law enforcement is at an unfortunate high level, Capt. Miller’s comments contributes to the public’s perception of that mistrust,” the complainant wrote.

Miller acknowledged in his statement that the complainant was a Facebook friend who once worked in the same precinct. The captain said he had heard “grumblings” — but offered no proof — that the complainant had been critical of Miller’s role in the 2017 shooting death of MiChance Dunlap-Gittens during a sting operation aimed at arresting another youth for a homicide it turned out that neither teen had anything to do with.

The county paid the Dunlap-Gittens family $2.25 million to settle a civil-rights lawsuit over the shooting, in which Miller, then a sergeant, led an arrest team that shot the fleeing teenager, who Miller claimed had displayed a gun. Questions were raised over a flawed and inadequate investigation, conflicting statements by the deputies and witnesses, and evidence that Dunlap-Gittens had both arms full of liquor bottles and could not have reached for a weapon as Miller claimed.

For more than two years after the shooting, the Sheriff’s Office’s official statement on the shooting said that Dunlap-Gittens had fired at the officers, which was false.

Miller’s involvement was questioned not only by the Dunlap-Gittens family but also by sheriff’s officials in an administrative review of the shooting that noted Miller had been the first officer on the scene of the homicide that led to the poorly planned sting operation in which Dunlap-Gittens was killed. According to records, Miller provided first aid to the dying victim — the son of a Seattle police officer — and there were concerns that he may have been emotionally compromised and should not have been involved in the arrest.

Miller suggested the complaint was an effort to make the Sheriff’s Office a “hostile place for me to work.” As proof, he noted that the complainant had posted on his own Facebook page a story and photo about the two white men accused of chasing down and killing unarmed Black jogger Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia last February, calling the suspects “cabbage heads” and described the shooting of Arbery as “white males asserting their perceived power and privilege over unarmed Black males.”

Miller suggested in his interview that the last statement was also a veiled reference to the Dunlap-Gittens shooting and was “aimed at me and aimed at making me not want to work here.”

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