A group of four retired Spokane County sheriff’s deputies is challenging Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich in a public campaign that questions his leadership.
The group, called Integrity First, filed paperwork last month as a political committee with the Washington Public Disclosure Commission.
They’re focusing on the sheriff’s get-tough policy toward officer wrongdoing – particularly a bill Knezovich has pushed to tighten rules governing appeals by officers who are fired.
“We are really bothered by Ozzie’s unrelenting focus on discipline and changing that law,” said former Sgt. Dave Reagan, who retired last year.
Reagan said the group intends to research Knezovich’s performance, including the cost of settling a number of the disciplinary cases.
Knezovich, who took office in 2006, said he is trying to clean up a department with too many instances of abuse, lies and misdeeds and a culture “of looking the other way,” he said.
During his time in office, Knezovich has fired or forced resignations or retirements of 47 employees, including seven commissioned deputies. The majority of the departures were jail employees.
Two other fired employees had their jobs given back by an arbitrator.
“I am standing up for good law enforcement officers,” the sheriff said. “We believe in standards. We believe in doing this job with integrity.”
In June, administrative responsibility for the jail shifted to the county commissioners.
The Integrity First members are Reagan, former public information officer for the sheriff’s department; former Lt. Earl Howerton, who led the sheriff’s internal affairs office; Jerry Brady, former jail captain; and former Detective Fred Reutsch.
Among them, they have 130 years of service in law enforcement.
“We are all proud of the agency,” Reagan said, but the sheriff’s focus has shifted to rooting out wrongdoing. He said Knezovich is too quick to mete out punishment, often disproportionate to the severity of the violation.
He also said that in the proposed legislation, Knezovich wants to disregard a history of civil service law.
At issue is how mitigating circumstances are used by an arbitrator to overturn firings.
Knezovich has had two firings overturned in recent years by arbitrators who agreed with the sheriff that there had been wrongdoing but cited mitigating circumstances.
Knezovich’s bill would require that arbitrators couldn’t overturn a firing unless they also found no wrongdoing in the case.
Here are the cases:
• Deputy Travis Smith in 2010 stabbed a knife into a car seat and wrote up nine infractions to the driver after she made a comment he didn’t like. The arbitrator said no one was endangered, even though the stabbing could constitute malicious mischief, and that the firing was an extreme penalty.
• Jailer Larry Zoesch was fired in 2010 after he ordered a mentally ill and potentially suicidal inmate to strip and do jumping jacks – a violation of civil rights, according to Knezovich. In returning Zoesch to work, the arbitrator ruled that the jail had a history of letting Zoesch get away with similar behavior as a “self-admitted jailhouse clown” and that no one tried to stop him from forcing the inmate to strip.
Brady had been in charge of the jail for several years after former Sheriff Mark Sterk promoted him from deputy to jail commander in 2005.
A political supporter of Sterk, Brady remained in the job through the first year of Knezovich’s administration.
Knezovich said he replaced Brady as captain because Brady wasn’t qualified.
Brady said the sheriff asked him to retire a few years later.
Brady said Integrity First isn’t seeking to unseat Knezovich in next year’s election. Rather, the group is concerned that employees are “totally unhappy with the way they are being treated by the sheriff.”
However, Brady said, he personally would like to find a candidate to take on Knezovich at the polls.
Knezovich said establishing strong professional standards is worth the risk of election defeat.
In 2011, Howerton was brought up for internal discipline and found to have been derelict in his duties, along with two other charges. A fourth charge of making false or misleading statements and failing to disclose facts was not substantiated.
Howerton received a written reprimand and retired a short time after that.
Knezovich said Howerton, as the head of internal affairs, failed to investigate allegations against Smith and misled the sheriff in another internal affairs case.
Howerton acknowledged that he did not collect phone records in the internal affairs case. “I accept responsibility for that,” he said, but he retired from the department “very happy.”
Howerton confirmed that Integrity First has received a contribution from the Spokane County Deputy Sheriffs Association, but declined to specify the amount. The contribution will be disclosed in a quarterly report to the PDC, he said.