Determined to rid his agency of a handful of rogue law enforcement officers and restore public trust in law enforcement, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is asking state lawmakers to support legislation that would prevent arbitrators from overturning a sheriff’s or police chief’s firing decision.
Knezovich said he’s frustrated that he was forced to rehire a deputy and a corrections officer after firing them for cause. He also said he has a general inability to fire dishonorable employees for fear of being sued.
“I’m doing this for two reasons,” he said: “Arbitrators are admitting these acts are bad but telling me I need to take the deputies back. But also for the great, honorable police officers. They need to know someone will fight for them.”
He added, “There are people that shouldn’t wear this badge.”
Since January 2011, two of Knezovich’s terminations have been overturned – a corrections deputy who violated the state’s strip-search policy when he ordered a mentally ill inmate to strip and do jumping jacks, and a deputy who was investigated for mishandling seized painkillers and stabbing a knife into a car seat.
Three more employees committed acts that Knezovich believed made them unworthy to wear a badge – two were investigated for driving while intoxicated and another “fixed” a traffic ticket. He believed, however, that had he fired them, an arbitrator would have reversed the decisions.
“In order to stop the erosion of public trust in law enforcement, it is imperative that law enforcement agencies establish and enforce high standards that promote ethical conduct,” Knezovich said in his letter to legislators.
The president of the deputies’ union, the Spokane County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, said the arbitrator’s role is critical.
“Both sides are somewhat emotionally invested in the outcome of the investigation, so it’s kind of nice when you can seek the advice of an outside professional,” said Deputy Wally Loucks.
Eliminating the arbitrator “is a little bit risky,” Loucks said. “If it’s implausible to seek the advice of an outside professional given that it’s a decision based on one person, then it’s unfair to the employee.”
Sheriff’s Office attorney Steve Kinn noted that Washington has strong legislation protecting public employees’ rights. “An arbitrator really has more power than judges in a way,” Kinn said. “There really are no grounds for an appeal on an arbitrator’s decision like when you disagree with a judge’s decision.”
Knezovich’s letter to Spokane County lawmakers was mailed Wednesday.
He is proposing an addition to RCW 43.101 that would say, in part: “the arbitrator shall not substitute his or her judgment for the appointing authority and shall sustain the termination unless the arbitrator also overturns the finding of having engaged in an illegal act or act of dishonesty or untruthfulness.”
Many other states include arbitration in public employee union contracts. However, a decision in New York’s top court this week, in which judges ruled unanimously that police discipline was no longer subject to arbitration in one small town, could signal a change.
According to news reports, the ruling could affect hundreds of additional towns in that state.
So far, no legislators have committed to backing or sponsoring Knezovich’s proposal. Several said they would consider it or were looking into it.
Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane, said, “I told him I would take a good hard look at what he’s proposing.”
A group that advocates for law enforcement issues in Olympia is considering backing the change to the law.
Don Pierce, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, said it will be up to a vote of the membership. “The only real question is whether this will be one of the association’s pieces of legislation or to just support Ozzie in getting the legislation pushed through,” he said.
Pierce added, “We have talked about this for a number of years and there is interest in it, I do know that.”
Former Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick has been involved in those conversations throughout the state and supports Knezovich’s effort.
“It takes a great deal of moral courage not to look the other way at troubled officers, deputies and troopers, especially when prior chiefs and sheriffs did look the other way for years,” Kirkpatrick said. “Chiefs and sheriffs who face ridicule and rejection when making those hard calls should be supported by arbitrators. Without the support, you will have more chiefs and sheriffs looking the other way.”
Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub said he needs to do more research on the current legislation and speak with colleagues. But, “in a general sense, I would clearly support any effort to preserve the integrity and the public trust in our police departments.”