Supporters of a petition to bring new civilian oversight to the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office pushed back against the sheriff’s claims that their intentions were political, as they delivered more than 1,000 signatures to the courthouse Wednesday.
“This isn’t a partisan issue,” said Rick Eichstaedt, director of the Center for Justice and one of the petition organizers. “It’s a good government issue.”
Supporters said they were spurred to action by recent high-profile incidents involving use of force by sheriff’s deputies and a perceived lack of investigative vigor by the existing Citizen Advisory Board. Knezovich said Tuesday that group has independent authority, but opponents counter that the board is appointed by the sheriff and cannot instigate investigations on its own.
Among the signatures on the petition, which was hand-delivered to the Spokane County Commission following a news conference Wednesday morning, are the names of some who have publicly challenged Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. Doug Orr, a Spokane police detective who unsuccessfully ran against the sheriff last November, and state Rep. Matt Shea, who has sparred with Knezovich repeatedly in recent years, especially since a public town hall earlier this year where the sheriff warned against the danger of right-wing groups that support Shea. But they also include members of civic groups that say they have no quarrel with Knezovich, including the NAACP, the Peace and Justice Action League and Spokane’s Human Rights Commission.
“We take great umbrage in the idea that this has anything to do with politics,” said Blaine Stum, chairman of Spokane’s Human Rights Commission.
Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said Wednesday he would “absolutely” be paying attention to the petition.
“Certainly, it’s a glimpse,” Mielke said. “But I also need to put it into perspective.”
Last year, when Knezovich requested that the commission approve a partnership with then-Spokane Police Ombudsman Tim Burns, Mielke said he didn’t see a demand from the citizenry to justify a high-cost partnership with the city.
Mielke echoed the comments of the sheriff when referring to civilian oversight, pointing out that Knezovich is an elected official and has been re-elected by wide margins in successive elections. He questioned whether the petition signatures were from “citizens on the streets,” or from those in the activism community.
“The ultimate accountability is every four years, whether the sheriff is on the right track or the wrong track,” Mielke said.
Though the petition suggests no model for what an oversight body made up of civilians would look like, Mielke said the legal authority of the Spokane County Commission to pass an ordinance that would directly affect operations of the Sheriff’s Office might be dubious.
“I am not aware of any legal authority of the county commission in exercising authority over the sheriff, other than budgetary authority,” Mielke said.
That is where Mielke would like to see a push for accountability, he said. The county plans to review pilot projects involving body cameras, including a current process underway at the Spokane Police Department.
“To me, the better accountability measure is body cameras, because they’re not subject to interpretation,” he said.
Mielke said the issue of body cameras for sheriff’s deputies is not one of money but of the logistics of operating a camera system, given Washington’s public records laws. Spokane police have been dealing with those issues since starting their body camera pilot program a little less than a year ago.
Supporters said Wednesday they were delivering the signatures to hold Knezovich to his campaign promise to provide independent civilian oversight.
“We have a thousand signatures here, calling for independent police oversight,” Orr said. “I would challenge you to go out and get another thousand, to say, ‘Let’s keep it as it is.’ This is not about just telling people we’re doing a good job, this is about showing them.”