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Sheriff’s race grabs attention

The Spokane County sheriff’s primary is unusual in many respects, and not just because it’s a spirited campaign for a post where the election has often been a mere formality.

The incumbent, Ozzie Knezovich, is campaigning on change and talking of restoring trust and integrity to the department. Shortly after taking office he fired a long-time detective – who was also a campaign donor – for exposing himself at a drive-through espresso stand.

The challenger, Spokane Valley Police Chief Cal Walker, is stressing continuity of the department’s proven leadership. Suggestions that he’d be removed from the chief’s job during the campaign brought protests from Valley officials – including some who back Knezovich but think Walker’s doing a great job in the new city.

Walker used to be Knezovich’s superior; now he occupies a spot that Knezovich controls through appointment.

While the sheriff is elected countywide, this contest will be decided by only a portion of the county’s voters: the ones who mark a Republican ballot for the Sept. 19 primary. The GOP winner will have a distinct advantage over James Flavel, a last-minute entry who filled an empty spot on the Democratic ballot.

But while former Idaho state Trooper Flavel has been in the race just a few weeks, Walker and Knezovich have been competing for the spot since late last year, when Sheriff Mark Sterk announced he was resigning from the post after about seven years, and giving county commissioners the job of appointing a successor to finish the term.

Sterk strongly recommended Walker, an 18-year veteran of the department who was one of his top administrators and chief of the Spokane Valley police force, which serves the new city under a special contract with the county. Walker also topped the list of nominees submitted by Republican precinct officers, with Knezovich, a 10-year department veteran who had risen to sergeant and was president of the deputies union, in the second spot.

Walker had much greater name recognition after getting the Valley police operation running and being involved in a pair of high-profile investigations, the Robert Yates serial killer task force and the Deputy Tom DiBartolo murder case.

Knezovich – who jokes he was “Ozzie who?” to most people when the process started – was a uniform officer with a string of assignments ranging from training officer to the SWAT team. He had a down-home, “aw shucks” demeanor and support from the rank and file.

After five months of study and a public hearing, commissioners passed over Walker and chose Knezovich, citing his management skills in the military and the department. Because both had planned to run for the post regardless of the commissioners’ appointment, the campaign merely kicked up a notch.

At last report, Walker had raised about $94,000 and Knezovich about $65,000. The two have spent significant portions of those totals for signs that battle for attention on every arterial and most side streets.

Some of the candidates’ differences deal with the day-to-day operations of the department. Knezovich said one of his first decisions as sheriff was to restore an investigator to the sex crimes unit, who had been reassigned to property crimes by his predecessor. That had left the county with only one person in the sex crimes unit, he said.

That earlier transfer was made, countered Walker, because the community was calling for more work on property crimes, which include the exploding category of identity theft.

Knezovich pledges to restore the old Crime Check system for victims to report the details of the crimes they experience. Walker agrees that citizen frustration over the loss of Crime Check “is one of the biggest screams out there” but adds reinstating the system will take money.

Something that will take significantly more money – between $80 million and $450 million, depending on the plan – is an expansion for the county jail that is currently operating far above capacity. One of the sheriff’s duties is operating the jail.

Some administrative changes have eased bottlenecks at booking, Knezovich said, but the problem of too many prisoners and too few cells will require a significant investment that his predecessor didn’t address.

“The problem with the jail was identified about eight years ago,” he said. “We need to find grant money and help from the citizens. We need a leader who can ask for that help.”

Walker counters that it’s not correct to say that nothing has been done about overcrowding. Built in 1986 to hold about 480 inmates, it has been retrofitted to hold 675. But a new addition or a completely new criminal justice complex – the respective ends of options being studied by the commissioners – would be a significant investment.

“To go to the community and ask for millions of dollars, you have to have your ducks in a row,” he said.

Knezovich said he would re-emphasize community oriented policing, making better use of the Sheriff’s Community Oriented Policing Effort offices around the county. Walker is assuring SCOPE volunteers that he’ll keep those offices open if he becomes sheriff.

Both say the department needs better communication with the community in general and minorities in particular; both deny that deputies use racial profiling when stopping drivers or investigating crimes.

“I’ve never seen it,” Knezovich said of racial profiling. “If people have hard instances that they can show us, we would take action.”

Even if profiling doesn’t happen, members of the minority community might have the perception that they are singled out, Walker said. “It doesn’t matter if I think racial profiling is going on, what matters is if people feel it is,” he said. “We need to listen to that perception.”

Last week, the president of the Spokane chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People raised another perception issue. V. Anne Smith criticized Knezovich for being in pictures on a Web site operated by Spokane radio talk show host Mark Fuhrman.

Fuhrman is openly backing Knezovich, who has been a regular guest on his morning radio program, calling him a “straight shooter.”

The talk show host has long been critical of Walker and the task force that investigated the Yates case, as well as the law enforcement hierarchy in the community.

“A picture speaks a thousand words,” said Smith, who contends Fuhrman’s reputation as a racist was established in the O.J. Simpson trial for his use of racial epithets. “We will be known as a city with a racist sheriff based on association.”

But others say Smith is way off base.

“If someone wants to call me a racist, I’ll wear that jacket. I’ve learned to live with it,” Fuhrman said, who added he’s never heard from Smith about her concerns. “But don’t put that off on Ozzie. I thought guilt with association went out years ago.”

Knezovich said he’s never been called a racist before, and to be branded as such based on a photo is disheartening. He added he has no control over what Fuhrman or anyone else puts on their Web sites.

He has never discussed race with Fuhrman and only knows generally about the former Los Angeles police detective’s problems in the Simpson trial. “He didn’t answer a question straight that he should have answered,” was how Knezovich described it.

Fuhrman is part of the Spokane media now, he added. “If I start excluding people from the media, where do I stop? Pretty soon I’m not talking to anybody.”

Edward Thomas Jr., founder of the now defunct African American Forum and a Knezovich supporter, said he didn’t share Smith’s views about the candidate or the talk show host and doesn’t know how many others do.

Thomas said he is sure Knezovich isn’t a racist. “I don’t agree with everything Mark Fuhrman says, but some of the things make a lot of sense.”

Walker said he won’t appear on the show, but not because he thinks Fuhrman’s a racist. Instead, he believes the talk show host uses tactics that demean people.

But Knezovich could be opening himself up to a perception problem with the minority community, Walker added. “In my relationships with Ozzie, I’ve never known him to be a racist. But it’s all about how do people perceive things. What’s it take for somebody to jump from point A to point B?”

 

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