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Johanknecht prepares for transition to King County Sheriff

 Lugging her case of berry-flavored sparkling water and her briefcase, Mitzi Johanknecht walked into the King County Sheriff’s Office Burien precinct ready for another day of leading a double life Tuesday. (Photo: KOMO News)

BURIEN, Wash. - Lugging her case of berry-flavored sparkling water and her briefcase, Mitzi Johanknecht walked into the King County Sheriff’s Office Burien precinct ready for another day of leading a double life Tuesday.

Days have been starting early and ending late for Johanknecht in recent weeks. While maintaining her full workload as the precinct commander she is also quickly studying up on leadership, policies and even getting fitted for a new uniform in her free moments.

Nearly a month ago Johanknecht was elected Sheriff.

For more than 30 years Johanknecht has maintained a low profile at the sheriff’s office. She has held multiple roles – working in the precincts even in the special operations division. She said she never even considered running for the top post until colleagues came to her last spring.

Now, after beating incumbent John Urquhart, Johanknecht is quickly learning how to lead a force of more than 730 deputies.

“It’s surreal,” Johanknecht said during an interview Tuesday.

Johanknecht said she has selected her leadership team. Her Chief Deputy, or second-in-charge, will be Scott Somers. Somers has been with the agency nearly 40 years.

Both Somers and Johanknecht say their top priority is creating a nurturing workplace for deputies. Something both say has eroded under Urquhart.

“Over the last five years folks have felt if they do anything wrong they’ll get fired. It’s about turning around that perception,” Johanknecht said.

Urquhart blamed Johanknecht and her team for playing a role in a recent sex assault investigation. Renton police found probable cause to recommend criminal charges be filed. Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe, who reviewed the case, declined to file the case in court.

Johanknecht said she hasn’t spoken to Urquhart since the election. She said her team is getting the help they need preparing for the transition from current Chief Deputy Jim Pugel.

Pugel, Somers said, will stay on board at the sheriff’s office after Johanknecht takes over.

Johanknecht said she has also sought guidance from other local law enforcement leaders as well as a former boss.

Former King County Sheriff Sue Rahr, who is the executive director of the state’s Criminal Justice Training Commission, said she has met with Johanknecht.

Rahr said she wanted to tell the new Sheriff “to tell her to buckle up. This is a lot harder than it looks from the outside.”

Rahr said she’s known Johanknecht for nearly 30 years and has full confidence in the changes she’ll make after taking office on January 2.

“She’s very good at bringing people together,” Rahr said. “I know in informal conversations with folks around the sheriff’s office there’s a lot of excitement and a lot of optimism.”

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