May 28, 2014 in City
Shawn Vestal: Sheriff giving high standards another last chance
So, if you’re ever pulled over or interrogated for any reason by Spokane County Deputy Scott Kenoyer, you know what you should say?
Whatever you want.
Not really! In the real world, without an arbitrator covering your back, that kind of thing gets you into trouble. But the Kenoyer case is the latest dreary, depressing example that our well-nigh-unfireable cops operate at a very different level of accountability than your ordinary citizen. There is seemingly no bottom rung on the ladder of embarrassment that might prevent an officer or deputy who’s been canned – not hit-and-run DUI, not flashing a barista – from challenging a firing, given how strongly the odds at arbitration lie in his favor.
In that context, Kenoyer’s case involves a lesser offense. He was having sex on duty. But hey – as the arbitrator pointed out – it was consensual sex. One to two minutes of oral sex. In a private home. While he was on duty. No biggie, right? Whatever, right? He’d told the dispatcher he was on a break. People get breaks, right? One- to two-minute breaks?
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who is often accused by his critics of being too fast on the draw disciplinarily, tried to offer Kenoyer a last-chance agreement and a suspension. It is, after all, against the rules for a deputy to have sex on duty, even if it’s not exactly the highest crime on the books.
This was too strict for Kenoyer, who refused. Knezovich fired him.
An arbitrator deemed this unreasonable, a violation of the contractual obligation for progressive discipline.
Apparently, having failed in his bid to give the on-duty romantic a second chance, Knezovich was obliged to make him a still better offer. So, say hello again to Deputy Kenoyer, whose pay has been restored dating back to his firing last August.
Part of the reason the arbitrator ruled in the deputy’s favor – the deputy who may now pull you over, restrict your freedom, use a weapon to detain you – has to do with a legal point in the way the sheriff drafted the last-chance agreement. The deal said Kenoyer would be fired and then reinstated under the agreement; that action fell outside the disciplinary routes available to him under the civil service laws and the employment contract.
Crucially, the arbitrator did not dispute the finding of misconduct. She just thought that the discipline was too harsh.
This is the very ground that Knezovich has tried to fight on before, and it seems to be a quixotic battle. He has pushed in the last two legislative sessions for a law that would limit the authority of arbitrators involving disciplinary cases; he wants to make it impossible, in cases where the misconduct is not in question, for an arbitrator to undo the disciplinary decision in cases where officers commit a major crime or lie on the job. Neither of those would apply in this circumstance, though Knezovich says Kenoyer was not honest in reporting what he was really doing when he took that break.
It has been amusing, over the past couple of years, to ask legislators their opinions on the chances that Knezovich’s measure would stand in Olympia, given the power that public employee unions are believed to wield in the chambers of the Legislature. Their responses – to me, at least – have ranged from bemused to frustrated, but there is unanimity that this proposal was dead before arrival. Knezovich has said he’ll bring it up again, perhaps if only on the principle that sometimes it’s worth it just to force people to show their colors.
Heading into an election season, the question of discipline, union challenges and overturned disciplinary rulings will be an issue for Knezovich. His critics portray him as an authoritarian disregarding the rules and overreacting to minor problems, a lawless despot running up the county’s legal bills; he has argued that the web of protections against abusive and arbitrary bosses has grown to a scope that far exceeds its purpose, and it now prevents disciplining officers who fall short of high standards of on-the-job behavior.
Whatever your view of Knezovich and his disciplinary approach, there is no question that the deputy in the latest case fell short of even a middling standard of behavior. If it’s a forgivably human mistake, it’s one that wouldn’t be forgivable in many other jobs upon which less public trust is placed. In this case, Kenoyer was basically put back on the job under very similar conditions to those he turned down: a last-chance deal.
Turns out he had one more last chance coming.
Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.