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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Ruling overturns deputy’s firing

Knezovich ’dumbfounded’ by arbitrator’s decision

A Spokane County sheriff’s deputy who was fired after he damaged a suspect’s car and mishandled drugs from a crime scene has been rehired following a state arbitrator’s ruling.

Deputy Travis Smith was terminated last January for what Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich called a “pattern” of poor work performance, but he was rehired after the arbitrator found that while there was just cause for disciplining him, he should keep his job.

He was rehired in November, and the termination changed to disciplinary suspension without pay.

Smith was the subject of three internal investigations in less than a year.

He was already under investigation for mishandling painkillers he seized and other violations when a second investigation found he stabbed a knife into a seat of a vehicle he was searching in August 2010 – an act that constituted malicious mischief.

He also issued nine infractions to the vehicle’s owner, an act the arbitrator said was retaliatory in nature. Smith denied any retaliatory intent, but testified he issued the infractions because he felt a comment made by the owner was a “personal attack on his ethics and integrity.”

The arbitrator, Shelly C. Shapiro, agreed “clear and convincing” evidence supports the sheriff’s conclusion Smith broke the law, but said there are several mitigating factors undermining his decision to terminate him. Those factors included the fact that “the criminal acts committed … did not put anyone’s physical safety at risk” and that the “acts were done out of the public view.”

“Discharge is the most extreme of the workplace penalties since the employee’s job, seniority and other contractual benefits, as well as reputation, are at risk,” Shapiro wrote. “For a law enforcement officer, termination can end a career.”

Knezovich was shocked.

“The decision dumbfounded us,” he said. “I have a very fundamental belief that law enforcement shouldn’t be committing crimes and they definitely shouldn’t be committing crimes on duty.”

The first internal investigation found that, on Aug. 2, 2010, Smith had improperly handled evidence when he seized a controlled substance, hydrocodone, which was in an unmarked bottle, returned to the Valley precinct at the end of his shift, and put the prescription pills in his mailbox rather than checking them into evidence. Shortly after, Knezovich learned about Smith stabbing the car seat.

The arbitrator sided with Smith’s union, – the Spokane County Deputy Sheriff’s Association, which challenged the firing – that because the cases occurred so close together, Smith didn’t have sufficient time to address his performance after being disciplined in the first case.

A third internal investigation into a Dec. 13, 2009, incident listed several charges, including that Smith loudly told correction officers in the booking area of the jail a suspect was a “drug smuggling prostitute.” However, the arbitrator did not factor that investigation into her opinion because Knezovich apparently did not factor it into his decision to fire Smith.

Smith, whose record was unblemished prior to the three investigations, has received several commendations, performed superbly at the academy and was receptive to training, Shapiro said. He was hired as a deputy in August 2007 and graduated from the academy with the highest academic rank and best overall rating in his class. He also is a graduate of Eastern Washington University and obtained an MBA from Gonzaga University in June 2010.

“These facts suggest, but do not guarantee, that (Smith) might want a law enforcement career bad enough to be able to put these incidents behind him,” Shapiro said.

However, she said Smith “had a hard time truly taking responsibility for his actions,” and had a “strong tendency to blame others.”

Knezovich said he stands by his decision.

“We did what we thought was right and wouldn’t change what we’d done,” he said. “And under the same set of circumstances, we’d terminate … any officer that did that.”