Public pressure builds around embattled Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer. What happens now?
Over the past month, Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer has amassed misdemeanor criminal charges, increased calls for him to resign, and a scathing report from a former U.S. attorney that found he endangered a civilian’s life.
The fallout has landed Troyer on the county’s so-called Brady list, which formally casts doubt on his credibility as a law enforcement officer.
Despite mounting pressure, Troyer insists the charges against him amount to an “anti-cop hit job.” He says he’s confident a Pierce County jury will not “de-elect the sheriff.”
“I’m built for this challenge and will fight it to the end,” Troyer said in a statement following the charging decision last month.
With Troyer resisting calls for his resignation, it’s unclear what could happen next.
But Sakara Remmu of the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance says the priority should be protecting the public from what she calls a pattern of dangerous and racist conduct from the elected sheriff.
“Our ultimate interest is making sure that Mr. Troyer is held accountable for the January incident as well as any other incidents that may come forward,” Remmu said, “and that he is not a law enforcement official in the state of Washington ever again.”
The January incident cited by Remmu is at the center of Troyer’s criminal charges and the independent investigation commissioned by the Pierce County Council. In the early morning hours of Jan. 27, Troyer followed Sedrick Altheimer, who was delivering newspapers on his regular route, through his Tacoma neighborhood. Troyer, who is white, has said he believed Altheimer, who is Black, looked suspicious.
Troyer then called 911 and told a dispatcher Altheimer threatened to kill him. He later walked that back in an interview with Tacoma police, according to an incident report. Troyer’s claims triggered a police response from dozens of units across the county. Ultimately, 14 officers arrived on scene and canceled the call upon realizing there was no emergency.
Following a months-long investigation by his office, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson charged Troyer with false reporting and making a false statement to a public servant. Troyer has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Shortly thereafter, former U.S. attorney Brian Moran released his report that found Troyer violated department policies in the incident. He said Troyer was untruthful and exhibited bias, which “strikes at the very heart of fair and just policing,” according to the report.
Moran wrote that the range of options available to Troyer when disciplining a deputy within his own department “lies somewhere on a continuum between no discipline and termination.” He concluded that Troyer’s conduct lies “at the very far end of the ‘seriousness’ scale of that continuum.”
“Ironically, the appropriate level of discipline would reside with Sheriff Troyer, the very person whose judgment in these matters has been called into question,” Moran wrote in the report.
That’s left some wondering what can be done to hold Troyer — or any elected sheriff who is accused of misconduct — accountable.
RECALL: A ‘VERY HIGH BAR’
The simplest remedy for removing an embattled elected official from office is through a vote of the people. Troyer was elected in 2020, so he isn’t up for re-election for another three years.
For those who believe that is too long to wait, there is the option of a recall.
“It’s a very high bar and pretty complicated,” Pierce County Auditor Julie Anderson said of the process.
Recalls are particularly challenging when the official in question was elected during a presidential election, when turnout is higher. That’s truer than ever for 2020, when Troyer won the seat. Last year, Pierce County had one of its highest turnouts ever in a general election at more than 82 percent, topped only by the 2008 presidential election.
Turnout affects how many verified signatures petitioners are required to gather in a recall effort. A petition seeking to unseat Troyer would require gathering and verifying 105,831 signatures. That’s equivalent to nearly half the population of the city of Tacoma.
And that’s just what it takes to get the recall onto the ballot.
A simple majority would be enough to recall the sheriff. But Troyer’s overwhelming support in 2020 proves to be a major hurdle for any potential recall petition. Troyer garnered support from nearly 64 percent of voters in the general election. In the crowded primary before that, more than 52 percent of voters supported him over three other candidates.
So far, nobody has filed a recall petition. KNKX Public Radio has made several inquiries, primarily to groups who have publicly called for Troyer’s resignation. They either did not respond to requests for comment or indicated there is no effort underway at this time.
Kathy Orlando, chair of the Pierce County Democrats, told KNKX that while members of her organization are considering a recall as one course of action, it’s in the “research phase” and nobody is ready to “take that leap yet.”
“There’s a lot to consider,” Orlando said during a meeting Thursday.
Orlando stressed that members of the community collectively decided to put pressure on Troyer to "do the right thing" and resign. That included circulating a petition that included nearly 83,000 signatures. She says it would be costly to launch a petition effort and that an “unsuccessful recall campaign is like a license to continue the systemic racism that exists in the Sheriff's department.”
But Orlando says Pierce County Democrats will support any potential recall petition if it were filed.
Pierce County Councilmember Ryan Mello, who is on the short list of elected officials to publicly demand that Troyer step down, acknowledges that recalling him would be difficult. But, he says, everything the public needs to know is in Moran’s investigation.
“The findings in this report and the charging statement from the state attorney general are incredibly serious and incredibly disturbing. And when you read that you can’t help but come to the conclusion that Sheriff Troyer is untrustworthy and untruthful,” Mello told KNKX. “If enough people took the time to read that report, digest the report, they would come to that conclusion.”
The findings in this report and the charging statement from the state attorney general are incredibly serious and incredibly disturbing. And when you read that you can’t help but come to the conclusion that Sheriff Troyer is untrustworthy and untruthful. If enough people took the time to read that report, digest the report, they would come to that conclusion.Pierce County Councilmember Ryan Mello
Should a petition be filed with the Pierce County auditor, it would need to detail how Troyer violated his oath of office or committed “misfeasance” or “malfeasance” in the performance of his duties as sheriff. A Superior Court judge would be tasked with determining the sufficiency of those claims. After that, petitioners would have six months to collect and file voter signatures.
If after all that the auditor verifies enough signatures, a special election would be set or the recall would be included in the next regular election.
Recalls are rare in Washington.
Pierce County has seen two failed efforts in the past 10 years: one in 2011 seeking to unseat Dale Washam, then the assessor-treasurer, and another in 2015 seeking to unseat then-prosecutor Mark Lindquist. Signatures were never turned in for the recall targeting Lindquist because gatherers fell short. The effort targeting Washam was regarded at the time as the largest recall petition in state history. That one amassed 64,387 valid signatures, according to the auditor’s office — just over 1,000 signatures short of what was required to add the recall to the ballot. Both Lindquist and Washam were eventually voted out of office.
Anderson said Pierce County has had one successful recall in recent memory: Evan Kast, a commissioner for a fire district in the Mount Rainier foothills, who was recalled on March 26, 2002.
As for recalling a sheriff, it appears that has only happened once in Washington state history — earlier this year in Benton County. Sheriff Jerry Hatcher was ousted following accusations of intimidating witnesses and public servants in investigations, retaliating against them and tampering with evidence. Hatcher faces his own criminal investigation by the state.
If a recall prevailed and Troyer was discharged, it’s unclear how that could affect his eligibility to run for office in the future.
“I don’t believe that being recalled from one elected office prevents someone from holding a different elected office,” Anderson said, adding that might even extend to running for the same office again. Anderson noted: “There is nothing that we do on our end to check on that." State law doesn't offer clarity either.
DECERTIFICATION: ‘LEGAL LOOPHOLE’
Troyer’s conduct and the subsequent scrutiny has left some questioning his fitness for law enforcement. But the commission in charge of certifying police officers says it won’t take action, citing limitations in state law.
In late July, a new law went into effect that broadened the purpose and scope of responsibilities for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. It gives the commission more investigative authority, including the power to initiate certification reviews.
But a commission spokesperson said a review can’t happen in this case because the incident with the newspaper carrier occurred before the new law went into effect.
Authors of Senate Bill 5051 disagree. Anne Levinson, a retired judge and a longtime oversight official for law enforcement, helped draft the legislation.
The commission does have the discretion to look at acts that occurred, particularly patterns of acts that occurred, prior to the effective date of the law. When looking at the issue of retroactivity, it’s really important to look at whether the conduct in which the officer was engaged was something that was obviously a violation of law or policy, in which case the officer would have been on notice that the conduct could result in discipline, possible firing and possible decertification.Anne Levinson, helped draft Senate Bill 5051
“The commission does have the discretion to look at acts that occurred, particularly patterns of acts that occurred, prior to the effective date of the law," Levinson said. “When looking at the issue of retroactivity, it’s really important to look at whether the conduct in which the officer was engaged was something that was obviously a violation of law or policy, in which case the officer would have been on notice that the conduct could result in discipline, possible firing and possible decertification.”
In Troyer’s case, criminal charges were filed because the attorney general says there is probable cause the sheriff broke the law.
Levinson added that the public now has high expectations that police accountability will be stronger statewide, which should be factored into any decision to review an officer’s certification. She noted that she respects the work of the training commission on many reforms related to policing.
Additionally, while the incident under scrutiny happened before the new law went into effect, the state charges and the findings of misconduct came after.
State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, the bill’s lead sponsor, used the example of the Jan. 6 riot in Washington, D.C., which happened weeks before Troyer’s run-in with the newspaper carrier.
“If there are officers in the state who participated in the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol,” Pedersen said, “that could be a basis for decertification.”
Pedersen says he’s not sure if Troyer’s actions on Jan. 27 justify decertification under the new standard. But he says the training commission does have the authority to look into it.
However, if the commission did decide to review and revoke Troyer’s certification, it likely wouldn’t have any bearing over his role as sheriff.
There is no explicit certification requirement to do the job. In fact, Doug Richardson — one of Troyer’s challengers in 2020, who was endorsed by the Pierce County Deputy Sheriff's Independent Guild — did not have a background in law enforcement.
Remmu, the lead strategist with the Washington Black Lives Matter Alliance, says elected sheriffs like Troyer who are accused of misconduct are evading accountability because of that “legal loophole.”
“Decertification on its face, some have argued, is toothless,” Remmu told KNKX. “However, the municipalities within a sheriff’s jurisdiction may legally require, or their insurance entities may require, that the sheriff is certified.”
The question that remains unanswered in Pierce County, Remmu says, is whether decertification could prevent Troyer from being eligible to go to work and perform some of the duties of the job as it relates to policing.
Anderson, the county auditor, says her office strictly deals with candidate qualifications related to voter registration and residency. Other qualifications, such as law enforcement certification, “we don’t get involved,” Anderson said.
Remmu’s organization has called upon the attorney general’s office to interpret how to apply the new law, particularly related to retroactivity, in hopes of compelling the training commission to reconsider its position on reviewing Troyer’s certification.
The attorney general offers formal, non-binding opinions when requested by designated public officials. Private citizens can’t request them, but members of the Legislature or other elected officials across the state can.
The training commission has said the attorney general’s office advised against retroactively applying the law.
Brionna Aho, communications director for Ferguson, said the office cannot confirm or deny that advice, citing attorney-client privilege.
“I can tell you our office offers our clients options-based advice, and the client makes the decision that is right for their agency,” Aho wrote in an email.
ELECTED VS. APPOINTED
Scrutiny of Troyer has renewed debate over an institutional remedy for holding sheriffs accountable: making the position appointed. This wouldn’t necessarily affect Troyer, but it would be one way to guarantee quicker action when future sheriffs are accused of misconduct.
Earlier this year, the Pierce County Council considered a proposal that would have asked voters to choose between electing or appointing their sheriff. The latter would give direct oversight, including hiring and firing power, to the county executive with confirmation from the council.
But the county charter requires supermajority support from council members to add a proposed change like that to the ballot. The measure was approved along party lines, one vote short.
Council members who supported the proposal said it was aimed at professionalizing the office and improving accountability. Opponents said elections offer the purest form of oversight there is: accountability through democracy.
Last year, King County voters ended the practice of electing their sheriff. But most counties in Washington state still vote for their sheriffs.
Levinson, the oversight official, says electing sheriffs diminishes accountability.
“Sheriffs have responsibility for people’s lives, can take their liberty, have a huge impact and need to have the same qualifications, criteria, and oversight as police chiefs,” Levinson said. “When there’s egregious misconduct, there’s a need for quick action and responsibility. And when you have appointed law enforcement leadership that means you have an elected official who is then responsible to step in and take appropriate action to better meet public expectations and accountability and trust and confidence to ensure that, in fact, there is constitutional policing.”
Sheriffs have responsibility for people’s lives, can take their liberty, have a huge impact and need to have the same qualifications, criteria, and oversight as police chiefs. When there’s egregious misconduct, there’s a need for quick action and responsibility.Anne Levinson, longtime law enforcement oversight official
There is no indication that the Pierce County Council will reconsider the issue. Council Chair Derek Young says he hasn’t heard from any of the measure’s opponents that they have changed their stance. Councilmember Dave Morell, who voted against the proposal, says he’s focused on the budget process.
“I do not have plans to bring legislation forward at this time around the position of sheriff,” he said.
Mello, the lone council member calling for Troyer’s resignation, says one proposal he’s considering is an independent ombuds position or office.
“I think there needs to be something outside the sheriff’s department system where the public can go and make a complaint and this is completely independent,” Mello said, so those complaints “can’t be swept under the rug.”
‘NOT BEYOND ACCOUNTABILITY’
Public pressure for Troyer to resign is building. But so far, only a handful of politicians have called for him to step down, including Washington House Speaker Laurie Jinkins.
Troyer’s next hearing in the criminal case, a pretrial conference, is scheduled for Dec. 3. If the case isn’t settled out of court, Troyer's case will go before a jury.
If convicted, the standard sentencing range for both offenses is up to a year in jail and up to a $5,000 fine. But it’s unclear if a conviction would have any bearing over his role as sheriff.
If an elected official is convicted of a felony, state law requires immediate forfeiture of office. Troyer’s charges are misdemeanors, not felonies. But that forfeiture also extends to any founded claims of so-called “malfeasance in office,” the definition of which is murky.
In his report to the council, Moran stopped short of determining whether the charges against Troyer could be considered malfeasance.
“Until his criminal matter is resolved, it is unknown if Sheriff Troyer will forfeit his office and the ability to hold public office again,” Moran wrote.
Moran stressed that while Troyer may be “above reach” when it comes to discipline within the department, he’s “not beyond accountability” under state law, even as he underscored the limited options available to people demanding that accountability.
We readily acknowledge that these various means of accountability are neither swift nor certain.Brian Moran, former U.S. attorney, in his report to the council
“We readily acknowledge that these various means of accountability are neither swift nor certain,” he wrote.
Still, Moran used strong language in the report, saying Troyer could have exercised good judgment on Jan. 27 by staying home that night and making a “non-emergent call to 911 about his suspicions.”
“But he did not, and as a result, he put others at risk and fell short of meeting the public’s — and his department’s — expectations of how its employees should do their jobs,” Moran wrote. “It remains to be seen if his lapses in judgment will prevent him from regaining the public’s trust and what consequences there may be for him personally, and by extension, the department he was entrusted by voters to lead.”