Depending on whom you ask, the timing of Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich’s request for the Spokane police ombudsman to assume a similar role for the county may be perfect, or politically motivated.
Discussions between Knezovich and Tim Burns, the man who’s conducted internal reviews of police cases since 2008, have ramped up in recent weeks to formalize a long-standing relationship between the two agencies, the two men said. Knezovich said his pitch to county commissioners Tuesday morning is the culmination of months of discussions he’s had with Burns and the Center for Justice to develop an oversight structure of the department similar to the one in place at the city.
“I’ve taken it as far as I can,” Knezovich told commissioners, urging them to start the conversation with city leaders about how to share the resources of the 6-year-old office founded in the wake of Otto Zehm’s death.
Knezovich’s request comes just three weeks before Election Day. His opponent, Spokane police Detective Doug Orr, said Tuesday the timing of the announcement – and the lack of expressed support from the Spokane County Deputy Sheriff’s Association – spoke volumes.
“I’d rather go arm-and-arm with them to the commission,” Orr said of the labor group, which has endorsed his campaign to unseat Knezovich. Orr also expressed impatience that it’s taken Knezovich so long to move forward with the proposal.
The city has had an ombudsman program for six years, and “on the city side, it looks like the sky didn’t fall,” Orr said.
The sheriff said he’s been pushing for the creation of the office since the spring. He dismissed notions that the proposal was motivated by political gain, saying he had to bring the issue to the commissioners’ attention before the county’s budget consumes their attention next month.
“I know enough about government that if you want something to get done in short order, you start six months out,” Knezovich said.
Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice, said his office this week gave Knezovich an ombudsman proposal resolution for the county after previous meetings in person.
No members of the deputy’s association were present at Knezovich’s presentation to commissioners Tuesday morning. But the sheriff said he didn’t anticipate much resistance to the idea from his employees.
“It’s my understanding that they don’t have too much of an issue with it,” said Knezovich, adding that the labor contract with deputies does not specifically mention oversight.
Concern about oversight powers proposed for the police ombudsman by the Spokane Police Guild prompted a series of town hall meetings and news conferences in December from Mayor David Condon and police Chief Frank Straub explaining the proposal. The guild later signed off on a commission of civilians to oversee operations of the office, a proposal forwarded by the City Council after Spokane voters approved a ballot initiative calling for more robust civilian oversight of law enforcement.
Spokane County Deputy Sheriff’s Association President Wally Loucks declined to comment for this story.
Knezovich said if commissioners approved hiring Burns for a range of services similar to what his office provides to the city, it would cost $250,000. Commissioners questioned if that money should be spent on other criminal justice priorities, given the lack of public clamor for an ombudsman at the county level.
“I know I’m not receiving any phone calls, letters, emails on this topic,” Commissioner Todd Mielke said.
Knezovich said the Sheriff’s Office also had not received many requests for an additional oversight officer. He said Burns had consulted on four cases, including the deputy-involved shooting of Pastor Wayne Scott Creach, since their relationship began in 2010.
“Overall, the citizens of Spokane County are very happy with the services they get from the Sheriff’s Office,” Knezovich said.
The commission did not take official action on Knezovich’s proposal, but commissioners Mielke, Al French and Shelly O’Quinn agreed the proposal should go before the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council, a body made up of representatives from the county prosecutor’s office, the police and sheriff’s departments, and the courts.
But Eichstaedt said submitting the proposal for their review might bog down the process, which Knezovich hopes to complete by March.
“It almost seems like that would be too big of a table, and the issue could potentially get lost in all the really important work that group is doing,” Eichstaedt said.
Burns said he’s discussed alternative service options with Knezovich, which would cut the price tag and allow the county to choose how they’d like to use the office. The changes in service would almost certainly mean more staff would need to be hired in the ombudsman’s office, he said, but added it was too soon to predict how many new employees might need to be hired.
Burns said he was encouraged by early discussions with local stakeholders about increasing the scope of oversight his office might provide. He said with the events in Ferguson, Missouri, the public demands more than ever enhanced law enforcement oversight, which he said was “here to stay.”
“A lot of this is timing; the timing seems appropriate,” Burns said. “This has come to the national level with Ferguson. We had our Ferguson several years ago.”
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