June 9, 2010 in City

Jailer who failed to discover inmate death fights firing

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A Spokane County Jail corrections deputy is challenging his dismissal in March for alleged failure to discover an inmate’s death and then lying about it.

The deputy, Kenneth Downey, is one of four who were implicated in the Nov. 11 incident, in which an inmate lay dead in his cell for eight hours before his death from natural causes was discovered.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said an autopsy revealed that 59-year-old Fredrick James Juhnke had been dead about 8½ hours before deputies discovered his death when they came to serve his dinner about 5 p.m.

Knezovich said he launched an investigation of the deputies who were responsible for Juhnke because, “based on the fact that we do 30-minute rounds, there is no reason that this shouldn’t have been noticed before that.”

He said videos revealed the deputies weren’t making their rounds to check on inmates.

Knezovich said he fired Downey for failure to do his job, falsifying his logbook and lying about it to investigators.

Another deputy resigned in lieu of termination, and two others received lesser discipline.

Knezovich said the two who kept their jobs “didn’t do their rounds, but they were truthful.”

Their names and that of the deputy who resigned weren’t immediately available.

Downey had a “spotless record” in approximately 10 years of service, according to Gordon Smith Jr., staff representative for the jail deputies’ union.

“The union (Local 492 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) does not support the concept of lying, but some of the facts in this case are in dispute,” Smith said.

If Downey isn’t satisfied with the outcome of a grievance Local 492 filed on his behalf, the union could move to binding arbitration under its contract with the county.

Smith said another reason for the grievance is that Knezovich failed to administer progressive discipline. Downey should have gotten some consideration for his record, Smith said.

“We looked at the fact that he had a good record, but … this is not a case where he came to work late or he broke a minor policy,” Knezovich said.

Lying in a death investigation is a straight-up firing offense in the sheriff’s book.

“If you couldn’t do this anywhere else, what makes it acceptable here?” Knezovich said. “It’s unacceptable for the citizens of Spokane County to expect that people who serve them would act in such ways.”

He acknowledged, though, that his brand of workplace justice hasn’t always succeeded. For example, Civil Service commissioners overturned his dismissal of a deputy who exposed himself to a young woman at an espresso stand.

“All I can do is try to uphold the standards and hope that arbitrators or Civil Service will agree,” Knezovich said. “But, ultimately, there has to be a standard.”

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