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Sun., July 14, 2013

Editorial: Integrity First ignores what the public needs

A new group challenging the leadership of Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has begun its campaign with a poor choice of name: Integrity First.

Irony First is more like it.

Can the four former department officials – Sgt. Dave Reagan, Lt. Earl Howerton, Capt. Jerry Brady and Det. Fred Reutsch – truly believe their effort will get a sympathetic hearing from a public that has had it up to here with repeated incidents of abusive behavior and the lies used to try and cover it up?

In February, Spokane voters demanding responsible, respectful law enforcement gave the city’s police ombudsman stronger authority to investigate citizen complaints against officers. The measure garnered almost 70 percent of the vote.

New Chief Frank Straub had already made a commitment to restore the reputation of the Spokane Police Department in the aftermath of the Otto Zehm tragedy.

The sheriff’s effort to rid his department of the incompetent and incredible has been a slog since he took control in 2006. From a roster of 570 before the recent County Commission takeover of the jail, 47 resigned, retired or were terminated as a result of disciplinary action. Seven were deputies.

But he, like every other county sheriff in Washington, has tired of seeing dismissals or lesser sanctions overturned by arbitrators who do not necessarily question their findings of fact, but the punishment. One “self-admitted jailhouse clown” in Spokane got his job back despite putting a stripped, mentally ill inmate through a set of jumping jacks.

Real funny.

In the just-ended, endless legislative session, SB 5668, sponsored by Sens. Mike Padden and Michael Baumgartner, and HB 1225, with Rep. Kevin Parker among the sponsors, would have forbade arbitrators from overturning a dismissal if “clear and convincing evidence” shows the employee lied or committed an illegal act.

All 39 county sheriffs supported the measure, but the state’s police chiefs were not yet on board. Knezovich says they are now, which will add new impetus to the legislative push.

Knezovich’s foes, in their zeal to stop the bill, tried to slime him by implying he was willfully taking a free ride at taxpayers’ expense by filling his gas tank on the county’s dime. At the sheriff’s request, city Police Ombudsman Tim Burns investigated. Burns’ conclusion, released July 8:

The sheriff’s use of a county credit card in May and June of 2006 – his first full months on the job – was the result of misinformation and stopped when the error was brought to his attention. He voluntarily reimbursed the county $372.30.

If he had taken the fuel stipend given his predecessor, it would have cost the county more than $1,100. Integrity First can try co-opting the principle, and misrepresenting its priorities, but their efforts should not shake the public’s confidence in Knezovich. He and Straub are delivering much-needed reforms to law enforcement in the county and city.

They have their hands full.

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