March 31, 2006 in City

Officers fighting repair charges

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Deputies involved in a fake pursuit that went awry last year are fighting demands by Sheriff Mark Sterk that they repay the cost of fixing a damaged Spokane police cruiser.

Union leaders say they agree that the deputies involved in the Oct. 3 chase deserve to be punished but say they shouldn’t have to pay for repairing the police car, because the driver of that car forgot to put it in park. They also say suspensions they received are too long.

“They want to own up to the mistakes they’ve made,” said Spokane County Deputy Sheriffs Association President Ozzie Knezovich, who also is a candidate for the sheriff’s post being vacated by Sterk. “The contentions are that this isn’t consistent with what the sheriff’s doled out in the past.”

The grievance, which was filed last year, also is finding its way into the political arena.

Sterk used the case as an example of why he contends Knezovich should have left the union leadership while running for sheriff. Sterk is set to resign his post today and has endorsed Spokane Valley Police Chief Cal Walker as his replacement.

Knezovich and Lt. Jim Finke are the other candidates vying to fill the remaining months in Sterk’s term.

The fake October pursuit started in the early morning of Oct. 3 when deputies in two cars were returning downtown to end their shifts. Deputy David J. Ellis was driving an unmarked sheriff’s Mustang with passenger Deputy Beau Vucinich.

Following Ellis was Deputy Samson Palmer in a marked patrol car. As Ellis turned west on Spokane Falls Boulevard from Division Street, he noticed that Palmer had activated his emergency lights, according to court documents.

Ellis told investigators that he didn’t pull over because he knew Palmer was “goofing off,” documents say. Instead, he drove about 40 to 50 mph down Spokane Falls, neglected to stop at a flashing red light and turned north on Post Street with Palmer in pursuit. The speed limit on Spokane Falls is 30 mph.

Meanwhile, Spokane police Officer Aaron Ames saw the marked car chasing the Mustang and thought it was a real pursuit, court documents say. He radioed the incident to dispatch and joined the chase. Other city officers responding to a false alarm at Anthony’s restaurant, just north of the Post Street Bridge, heard the call from Ames and laid a spike strip in front of the Mustang as it approached.

The Mustang struck the spikes, and the chase ended with guns from Spokane police drawn. In the chaos, a Spokane police officer arriving on scene forgot to put his car in park. It rolled into a pole, causing more than $2,000 damage.

Sterk gave unpaid leaves to the three deputies: Palmer for three weeks, Ellis for two weeks and Vucinich for six days. He also ordered them to pay for damage to the police cruiser and the flattened Mustang tire. Suspensions haven’t been served pending the outcome of the grievance.

Palmer and Ellis received second-degree negligent driving tickets last month in connection to the chase. Their $538 fines were reduced to $325 because of clean driving records.

Reached Thursday, Ellis declined to comment on the chase, pending the outcome of the grievance.

If administrators and the union fail to agree on punishment, an arbitrator will resolve the issue, said Sgt. Jeff Tower, union vice president.

Knezovich said the union likely wouldn’t have fought paying for damage to the police car had the deputies crashed into it, as opposed to the officer forgetting to put the car in park.

In an interview last week, Sterk questioned why taxpayers should foot the bill for damage to the cruiser. Sterk did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday and Thursday.

“The city wouldn’t have been out any money had (the chase) not occurred,” said sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Dave Reagan. “So it’s appropriate that (the deputies) cover their costs.”

The union contends that Sterk got caught up in media attention to the chase and didn’t adequately consider the deputies’ previous records before giving punishment. Less than two weeks after the chase, Ellis was honored by Sterk for pulling a suicidal woman from the Spokane River.

“For what they did, knowing what other people have done, that’s pretty harsh for a first instance,” said association Treasurer Eric Johnson. “They haven’t been in trouble. They’re all good cops.”

Reagan noted that The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board recommended much harsher punishment than given by Sterk.

“We don’t let the media direct our decision making, but we are cognizant that we have to protect the public’s trust and confidence,” he said.

Knezovich criticized Sterk for turning the grievance into a political issue just before county commissioners decide who will lead the sheriff’s office. He said he’s stayed on as president to finish up work on several issues and is taking a leave of absence from union leadership starting Saturday.

“I have a duty to fairly represent my members,” Knezovich said. “If I don’t do that, technically, I can be sued.”

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