Since Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich was appointed to office in April 2006, 45 Spokane County employees under his supervision have been fired, or left rather than be fired. Two of those firings were overturned by an arbitrator:
• Larry Zoesch, a corrections deputy, violated state policy when he ordered a mentally ill inmate to strip and do jumping jacks. Arbitration documents say Zoesch originally said it was a joke or a gag, but later said he did it to make sure the inmate wasn’t concealing contraband.
Knezovich said the inmate’s civil rights were violated. Zoesch, however, “was given his job back by the arbitrator. He did it, but the arbitrator decided I was just a little too harsh in my discipline.”
• Deputy Travis Smith’s job was restored after Knezovich fired him for a pattern of poor work performance, including mishandling painkillers he’d seized and an investigation that found he’d stabbed a knife into a seat of a vehicle he was searching in August 2010 – an act that constituted malicious mischief.
The arbitrator found that although there was “clear and convincing” evidence to support the sheriff’s conclusion Smith broke the law, Smith’s job should be restored because the deputy was just beginning his career and “the criminal acts committed … did not put anyone’s physical safety at risk” and the “acts were done out of the public view.”
Said Knezovich, “after that decision, multiple citizens asked me: ‘So, sheriff, if I commit a crime, but no one sees it, I can get off?’ ”
Knezovich says there are other employees he would have fired, but he believed an arbitrator would reverse his decision:
• Deputy Michael Brooks “fixed” a ticket given to a Spokane Police Department officer’s friend by falsifying records, and then accepted three $20 gift cards for doing it.
Brooks admitted to the violation, but also had a 20-year record that was spotless until that time.
“Based on our experience with arbitration, we knew the termination wouldn’t stand,” Knezovich said. Brooks was given a 10-hour suspension and a last-chance agreement.
Knezovich said the Spokane County Deputy Sheriff’s Association is taking him to arbitration over the last-chance agreement.
• Deputy Dan Knight was arrested in Coeur d’Alene on suspicion of driving under the influence in March 2011. The charge was deferred and eventually dismissed because it was Knight’s first offense. He received a 40-hour suspension and alcohol counseling.
• Lt. Steve Jones crashed into a pole and was arrested by the Washington State Patrol for suspected DUI with a 0.17 blood alcohol level in 2010. He was investigated for felony hit-and-run in 2011, but investigators and the sheriff exonerated him on that charge, although there was evidence of negligent driving.
“In my opinion, our people should not be getting DUIs,” Knezovich said.
He added that although he didn’t like putting Jones back in charge of patrol, he had limited options.
“Like Travis Smith, where was I supposed to put him? I put him back in patrol. He doesn’t have the skills to be an investigative lieutenant. Why would I jeopardize my investigations?”
He added, “There’s no place to hide people, so where do you put them?”