A civilian board tasked with advising the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office on disciplinary decisions and policies should have more autonomy, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and consultant Kathryn Olson were told this week at a community forum.
“They’re not an oversight board,” said David Brookbank, a blogger, social worker and activist at a community forum held Tuesday night at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Spokane. “There’s no independent oversight in this.”
But the lack of a funding source and the authority of the sheriff as an elected official could hem in calls for increased autonomy for the 17-member Citizen’s Advisory Board. In response to a citizen-launched petition and calls from the Center for Justice and Peace and Justice Action League, the board has in recent months launched a website and adopted new bylaws addressing concerns about Knezovich’s influence.
“We’re trying to do the best with what we’ve got,” said Bob West, the board’s vice chairman, in an interview after the forum.
Among the concerns voiced by those in attendance were diversity on the board, its lack of transparency and the prominence of its decision-making, and the need to address perceived racial disparities in policing, especially in Spokane Valley.
“It needs to be independent. It doesn’t feel independent from the sheriff. It needs to be transparent. It doesn’t feel transparent,” said Sandy Williams, a commissioner on African American Affairs in Washington who sits on the board.
The push for new bylaws and representation has been sparked by several high-profile incidents involving the use of force by deputies. Many speakers mentioned the death of Ryan Holyk, a 15-year-old Spokane Valley resident who was killed in a bicycle crash involving a sheriff’s deputy in May 2014. The board is finishing its review of the internal investigation that ended in a written reprimand against Deputy Joseph Bodman, and it should be released next month, West said.
“This case, out of any case, is going to define this board,” he said. “We need to get this right.”
Board members changed the bylaws to pick their own members. Knezovich still has the power to dissolve the body at any time, a provision the sheriff said he can’t change because his office gives the board its authority.
The forum became heated at times as activists questioned whether the investigations into Holyk’s death, and those of Wayne Scott Creach, William Berger and others, were tainted by law enforcement bias. Speaking after the forum, Knezovich said the discussion at times was “hijacked” by those uninterested in developing a working advisory board.
Knezovich said those cases underwent extensive outside reviews by agencies including the Washington State Patrol, the Spokane Police Department and – in the case of the Creach shooting – a federal judge to determine legal liability for the Sheriff’s Office. Knezovich said he brought in consultant Olson, who was head of the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability, to work as an additional outside check on the performance of the advisory board.
Knezovich said Spokane County residents have a much more direct method of oversight over his office than the Spokane Police Department: an election, in which they can choose to replace him as head of the agency.
Olson estimated her report on the performance and suggestions for Spokane County’s advisory board would be published sometime in the next month.
Phil Tyler, vice president of Spokane’s NAACP, told the forum he appreciated their input as they would be the authors of change, not outsiders.
He also said true independence for the board would come from political change.
“You have to have political support, to get some of these things done,” Tyler said. “If you want independent oversight, it’s going to have to be somebody that’s paid outside of a volunteer force.”
Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice, said the forum showed the public wasn’t apathetic about oversight for the sheriff’s office.
“I think we all heard that people really care about this issue,” Eichstaedt said. “Frankly, this is the first time I’ve been in a room talking about oversight of the county.”