The search to replace Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick hasn’t even begun, but there’s already a high-profile candidate: Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. Knezovich confirmed Thursday that he’s willing to serve as the city’s interim chief, an administrative role he believes he could fill while continuing to run the sheriff’s office. “It wouldn’t be any different than leading a bigger force,” Knezovich said. With change at the top of Eastern Washington’s largest law enforcement agency, Knezovich said the timing is perfect for the city and county to explore combining forces with the sheriff’s office, the second-largest police force in Eastern Washington. With him temporarily at the helm, the city and county would have time to consider crafting an agreement for the city to contract its operations with sheriff’s office, much like Spokane Valley currently does. He said he wouldn’t ask for additional payment to do the job. Mayor-elect David Condon said Thursday that he is open to Knezovich’s offer, but added that he’s heard from other potential candidates, too. Spokane Mayor Mary Verner has said she plans to start a national search for a police chief so that a process is underway when Condon becomes mayor. Condon said he’s OK with Verner moving ahead with a search as long as the selection is made after he becomes mayor. Condon said he wants his transition team to consider whether he should pursue a consolidation with the sheriff’s office. “Simply put, it’s on the table,” said Condon, adding that he’s also open to considering interim Assistant Chief Scott Stephens for a temporary role as chief while final plans are being assembled. “As a political leader I owe it to myself to understand what it means. By no means is it something I take lightly.” Consolidation of government services has been a frequent topic among city and county leaders for decades. But consolidation has been less palatable since voters rejected a full consolidation of city and county governments in 1995 and the incorporation of Spokane Valley in 2003. In the last few years, in fact, regionalization has gone in reverse. The city decided to pull out of the county-run district court in 2008 and the county recently has said it plans to leave the city-run regional solid waste system. Just this month, voters rejected a plan to regionalize animal control. Kirkpatrick declined to comment on Knezovich’s candidacy for her job. “First I’d like to talk to the (Condon) transition team and let them speak to that themselves,” she said. Kirkpatrick said consolidating the departments has long been a discussion. “It’s always a discussion and has been for years among law enforcement communities,” she said. “It’s a topic everywhere in the country.” Whether or not the police department merges with the sheriff’s office, it is at a major crossroads. Not only has Kirkpatrick announced her retirement for Jan. 2, but Verner announced this week that she will ask the U.S. Department of Justice to open an investigation into the policies and procedures of policing in Spokane to help bring public confidence back to the force after the conviction of Officer Karl F. Thompson earlier this month for excessive force and lying. Although Condon said he’s open to pursuing consolidation, he added that pushing ahead with a merger early in his term might be too much change at the start. He added that he believes consolidation works better when local governments share control of an organization, such as the Spokane Transit Authority or Spokane International Airport, rather than contractual relationships, like Spokane Regional Solid Waste System. Knezovich, who backed Condon’s bid to lead Spokane, said he’s had a couple of conversations with Condon on the phone to discuss the idea. He said he also talked with Mayor Mary Verner about it, and she considered appointing a task force to study the concept. Knezovich said once the process moved forward, it could be complete in six months to a year. Combining forces would eliminate duplications and may allow him to boost services, including restoration of property crime investigations in the city. The city eliminated its property crime detective unit this year, but still investigates property crimes using general detectives. Spokane Police Guild President Ernie Wuthrich said he hadn’t heard anything about Knezovich being a candidate until a reporter called. He said he has a lot of questions about how Knezovich could run both organizations and how a merge would work. “I don’t even know what to think about that,” he said. “I don’t know how that would work. Obviously I don’t think our members dislike Sheriff Knezovich, but I don’t know. I just don’t know.” He said he’s long known of “informal talks” of combining the agencies. He said if a formal proposal is made, guild members likely would vote on it. “I think we’d have to,” he said. “It would definitely affect wages, hours and working conditions somewhere in there.” Wuthrich said he’s not surprised Kenozvich may be looking to combine. “His department is shrinking with the (West Plains) annexation and the city of Spokane Valley constantly chattering about the possibility of starting their own police department and not contracting with the county anymore,” Wuthrich said. “I think that would be a concern to me if I was sheriff.” Councilman Jon Snyder said Thursday he hasn’t heard consolidation discussed about the police department since he’s been a council member. He suspects moving that direction would involve substantial policy and operations implications. “I don’t see how it would not take a lot of effort,” he said. Council President-elect Ben Stuckart also said he hadn’t heard about the sheriff’s offer. “There needs to be a very large community conversation about policing and that’s not something to take lightly,” Stuckart said. Sheriff’s employees generally earn less than police employees. Knezovich said grandfathering current city officers under the current scale and hiring new officers under the deputy scales could save money. But it’s far from clear that the Spokane Police Guild would accept such terms. Knezovich said he’s open to having an ombudsman with investigative power, and said there’s another benefit to residents to consolidation. “A sheriff is held accountable every four years,” Knezovich said.
Staff writer Meghann M. Cuniff contributed to this report.