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News >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Spokane Police Guild should take a cue from union president representing sheriff’s deputies

UPDATED: Tue., June 18, 2019, 8:27 p.m.

Jeff Thurman, of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, plays with his K-9 Laslo, Feb. 24, 2017. He was fired this month after he was accused of making a racist statement in 2016. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Jeff Thurman, of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, plays with his K-9 Laslo, Feb. 24, 2017. He was fired this month after he was accused of making a racist statement in 2016. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Talk about your man-bites-dog story: The complaint that led to the firing of a Spokane County deputy for making a racist, violent comment was initiated by the head of the deputies union.

It was, he said, the right thing to do.

This is not, to put it mildly, the response we have come to expect from the unions representing law enforcement officers accused of wrongdoing. If you’re conversant with the history of the union that represents Spokane police officers – which has been the most significant obstacle to police accountability and transparency in the city – then you’ll find the actions of Kevin Richey all the more commendable.

Richey, who is the mayor of Airway Heights and the president of the Spokane County Deputy Sheriffs Association, heard that a longtime member of the sheriff’s department, Sgt. Jeff Thurman, had said the following to another deputy: “You ready to kill some ( N-word) tonight or what?”

This remark was heard by two on-duty deputies in December 2016, according to the account of events provided by Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. Concerns about the remark were subsequently raised with three supervisors in the department, who were not asked to take formal action and did not.

It took roughly 29 months for anyone to officially complain – and that only occurred after Richey heard of the incident this spring and relayed it to another sergeant, who notified Knezovich, who fired Thurman in fairly short order following an investigation.

“I just did what I thought was right,” Richey said.

What a concept. During roughly the same window of time that Richey was doing what he thought was right, the Spokane Police Guild was working to keep body-camera video that allegedly depicts extremely aggressive, violent behavior on the part of an officer under wraps. News reports have cited sources who have seen the video saying it shows an SPD officer cursing, threatening and hoisting a police dog into a vehicle though the suspect was surrendering.

Ombudsman Bart Logue, who is authorized to review the department’s uses of force, was not notified, nor was an internal affairs investigation opened until after Logue started asking questions. Logue said everyone in the department, including Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl, downplayed the incident to him once he began asking questions. Meidl has denied that.

The City Council asked to see the video, and the administration said yes – if council members would sign a nondisclosure agreement. The administration argued that this was required to protect an ongoing IA probe; the agreement was offered by the Police Guild as a compromise.

The council said no, as it should have. Now we must all stay vigilant about ensuring that video eventually sees the light of day, once the IA investigate is closed.

Meidl has pledged to make the video public at that point.

Call it a disclosure agreement.

In the meantime, we are presented again with a case in which the terms of transparency and accountability are being dictated in part by the police union. It’s an utterly perverse situation – the overseen deciding the terms of their oversight – and we should never get used to it.

By contrast, Richey exhibited behavior that should be more common: a sense of personal and professional integrity. A recognition that his duty does not flow only toward the union, but also toward the public and its expectation of high standards. A recognition that the right thing is not merely the thing you can get away with because labor laws skew in your favor.

Thurman was fired last week by Knezovich.

“This type of behavior will never be tolerated,” Knezovich said. “It’s reprehensible, and any deputy who dishonors his community and his badge this way, they will not work for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.”

That’s good to hear. What’s troubling is how long Thurman’s behavior bubbled under the surface at the sheriff’s department, known to many but unreported. Thurman made the remark in a call to an on-duty deputy; that deputy would later say he had heard Thurman use racial slurs before.

Another deputy, who is African American, heard the remark as well. He approached three supervisors with concerns, though he didn’t want to make a formal report. Those supervisors sat on it, failing what we might call the Richey test.

Knezovich has said the Thurman case does not indicate a deeper cultural problem in the department. He said the fact that other deputies brought forward similar concerns about Thurman, rather than stepping to his defense, supports that contention.

The long life this incident had before it surfaced, however, does not. Two and a half years passed before anyone was prompted to act. That reflects a willingness among some in the department to live with it, to tolerate it, to let it slide. The fact that this includes three supervisors – whose failures to act are now being investigated – is especially disheartening.

Richey brought the matter forward, and good for him. But he was far from the first person in the department who had the chance to do the right thing.