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Opinion >  Column

Doug Clark: Ozzie out of character on this one

I remember the moment I became an Ozzie Knezovich fan.

It was June 2006. That’s when Knezovich showed Joseph “Cuppa Joe” Mastel and the citizens of Spokane County what being a real leader is all about.

Remember Cuppa Joe?

That’s the nickname I bestowed on the sheriff’s detective who flashed his manhood at an Airway Heights barista.

Knezovich had been Spokane County sheriff barely two months when this happened. He was untested at handling a crisis, let alone one so bizarre.

But two days after Mastel’s abhorrent behavior made news, Knezovich said to hell with departmental protocol. He did the right thing and fired the 12-year veteran.

Asked about his swift move on a local radio talk show, Knezovich replied with wise words:

“I felt I owed it to Spokane County to make sure this didn’t drag out.”

What a difference four years can make.

It pains me to say it, but the sheriff’s leadership in the aftermath of the shooting death of a 74-year-old Spokane Valley pastor by a sheriff’s deputy has been neither swift nor inspiring.

In particular, Knezovich’s decision to allow Deputy Brian Hirzel to postpone a key voluntary interview regarding the shooting until he got back from a scheduled vacation to Montana and Las Vegas galls me greatly.

We’ve reported that Knezovich has defended not canceling the deputy’s time off out of concern that doing so “could taint the investigation by making it appear that he forced Hirzel to give the statement.”

Sorry, Ozzie. That explanation is about as close to political doubletalk as I’ve ever heard you utter.

I’ll be first to admit that I don’t know a thing about running a sheriff’s department or how to investigate a shooting.

But I do know a thing or two about PR and perceptions.

So trust me when I say this, sheriff. Hearing that the shooter is off vacationing in Vegas instead of talking to investigators is a public relations disaster of the first order.

It sure doesn’t help lower the distrust and discontent that many people around here have for local law enforcement.

I’m not going to rehash all the published details about the horrible night of Aug. 25.

You’d have to have been off vacationing in Vegas yourself not to have heard that Deputy Hirzel shot and killed pastor Wayne Scott Creach at the minister’s Plant Farm.

Hirzel was in an unmarked car, checking for possible prowlers.

We know Creach realized someone was on his property.

We know he went out armed with a handgun to see who was there.

We know Hirzel fired his weapon and with fatal results.

Was the shooting justifiable, though certainly regrettable?

Or was this yet another case of police excess and overreaction?

I’m keeping a cool head until all the facts emerge.

Right now I just feel horrible for what Creach’s loved ones have had to go through. The way this has dragged on must be a nightmare for them.

Am I still an Ozzie Knezovich fan?

Yes. I think the sheriff is an honest guy with good intentions.

I also think he needs to stop listening to the many voices around him and trust his own sense of what’s right and what’s wrong.

That’s the leader who won me over four years ago.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by e-mail at dougc@spokesman.com.

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