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Editorial: Let leaders fire officers: Rein in the arbitrators

About this time last year, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich was circulating a memo to his staff noting they could be fired for on-the-job lying, drunken driving or for other crimes. But he couldn’t be sure he could back up these seemingly obvious standards, because he’s witnessed the reinstatement of wrongdoers through arbitration.

He still can’t be sure, because his bid to tighten the latitude given to arbitrators was diluted last year in the state Legislature. He’s taking another run at it this year, and he’s gotten the signed support of the 38 other county sheriffs. He also has a sponsor, Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, who is working on a bill he hopes will gain the support of both parties, police chiefs and the unions.

The key to wide support will be how narrowly the language is written. The sheriffs want it to cover lying on the job and illegal activities, specifically murder, rape, burglary, theft, fraud, malicious mischief, arson and domestic violence. See anything there you want a cop to get away with?

You wouldn’t think such standards would need to written down, but a 2009 state Supreme Court ruling suggests otherwise. In that case, a Kitsap County sheriff’s deputy was fired for 29 documented incidents of misconduct, including lying. But the court upheld an arbitrator’s decision to reinstate him in part because it could not be established that telling the truth was an essential job function.

Being truthful, of course, is vital for law enforcement officers. The public and the courts must be able to trust the veracity of officers. But upholding that basic tenet has become more difficult, Knezovich laments.

Arbitrators are allowed to reverse punishment meted out by sheriffs and police chiefs even when the facts are not in dispute. That needs to change, because it undermines the authority of those trying to manage a workplace and makes them think twice about firing someone who truly deserves it. Plus, citizens can hold leaders accountable if they don’t like the decisions.

The Spokane Police Department lost credibility more for its lying about the Otto Zehm case than for the terrible acts shown on video.

Also, this region has several “Brady officers.” The name is derived from a court case establishing that defense counsel must be informed when officers involved in their cases have a history of lying. That’s a problem when it’s time to testify. Perhaps some or all of them would’ve been fired if the state had empowered sheriffs and police chiefs by reining in arbitrators.

Most law enforcement officers appreciate the importance of honesty and obeying the law, but their unions have significant influence over lawmakers. We hope they will stand up to their leadership and ask, “Why not?”

“You lie, you die” must be the standard. Committing crimes while enforcing laws cannot be tolerated. We urge lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to support a bill that upholds the obvious.

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