OLYMPIA – The fight over who decides what can get a police officer fired prompted a legislative hearing that pitted beat cops against their chiefs and provoked Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich to say a state senator was attacking his character.
“It was very insulting,” Knezovich said of questions from Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, about whether he’d ever used publicly funded fuel for personal purposes, an allegation he denied.
Roach said she was just asking a question someone else had suggested and if he thought she was challenging his integrity, “he doth protest too loudly.”
The exchange came in a Senate Committee on Law & Justice hearing on Senate Bill 5668, a bill Knezovich has championed that would bar an arbitrator from reinstating an officer or deputy who had been fired for committing a crime or lying. Under the latest version of the bill, if the crime or the lie can be proved with “clear and convincing evidence,” a sheriff’s or police chief’s decision to fire or otherwise penalize an officer could not be changed by an arbitrator.
Representatives of police organizations and unions argue the current process is an example of due process. It is backed by law and union contracts and allows an arbitrator to overturn a firing or other penalty determined to be unfair. Fred Ruetsch, a former Spokane County detective and former union president, called the bill “a step backwards to the good old boy system” where a sheriff or chief could play favorites and punish enemies.
Sheriffs said reinstating officers after they’ve committed a crime or been caught lying creates the impression that they’re “above the law.” Seattle police are under a U.S. Department of Justice review, and Spokane voters this week approved an independent ombudsman to investigate police misconduct, Knezovich told the committee. The bill represents a watershed moment to protect the integrity of law enforcement, he said.
Roach said she supports a rule in which an officer who lies gets fired, then asked Knezovich if he thought it was dishonest for an officer to put publicly funded gas into a private vehicle. He replied that it would be dishonest.
“Have you ever done anything like that?” she asked.
“No,” Knezovich replied.
“Never at all?”
“Interesting,” she said.
After the hearing, Knezovich said Roach had been told about an allegation that arose after he had been appointed to the sheriff’s post over Cal Walker, the preferred choice of his predecessor, Mark Sterk. As the new sheriff, Knezovich was entitled to a county car or a stipend for the use of his own car; he chose the latter, but for the four to six weeks it took to process the stipend, he was told to use a fuel card for county business because it was cheaper than paying him mileage. When a question arose about him using his own vehicle to attend campaign events, county officials said that wasn’t a problem but he wrote a check to cover all of the expenses on his fuel card.
“For them to be attacking my character is beyond the pale,” a clearly angry Knezovich said.
County Commissioner Todd Mielke said Friday that county officials did determine Knezovich hadn’t done anything improper after Walker’s supporters in the department brought the allegations to them. He corroborated Knezovich’s statement that the sheriff is entitled to a stipend and the fuel card was proposed as a cheaper alternative than paying a per diem or a mileage rate while the stipend was processed.
“Eventually, Ozzie said ‘the heck with it’ and reimbursed the county for all his fuel charges,” Mielke recalled. Knezovich beat Walker in the 2006 primary, won that year’s general election and was re-elected unopposed in 2010.
Roach said later that Knezovich explained the situation and she believed someone could still contend he was using public gasoline for personal use, but “I’m not accusing the man of that … I just asked the man a question.”
SB 5668 and dozens of other bills must clear the committee by Friday or they will be dead for this session. Chairman Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, a sponsor of the bill, said it isn’t a partisan issue but he’s not sure if the bill has the votes needed to pass the committee.