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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Sheriff, chief need power to restore public trust

Imagine you’re a private employer who cannot fire an employee because you’re unable to point to policies that definitively state that workers should not commit crimes, or lie to their bosses. And even when you clearly establish cases of crimes and the mendacity, you are stymied because lenient arbitrators disagree with the level of punishment.

Welcome to the world of sheriffs and police chiefs in Washington, where upholding integrity, ethics and the law is a perilous minefield. Law enforcement chiefs need the leeway to establish discipline and punish their workers, but labor laws, court rulings, union contracts and arbitrators keep running interference.

The latest imbroglio involves a deputy sheriff who was fired by Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and reinstated by an arbitrator. Arbitration can be a cost-effective tool for dispute resolution but, as this case shows, the system needs to be refined.

The arbitrator did not dispute Knezovich’s case against Deputy Sheriff Travis Smith, but she ruled that the punishment didn’t fit the wrongdoing. The violations included criminally slashing the upholstery of a car with a knife, and ticketing a motorist nine times for one stop because she wasn’t sufficiently respectful.

The irony just hangs there.

Law enforcement officers want respect, but they battle for special consideration when they step over the line. Then their lawyers take over, asking for the whereabouts – in writing – of standard grade-school expectations, such as abiding by the law and telling the truth.

We have seen how difficult this has made it for Knezovich and former Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick to restore public trust after a series of infamous cases involving law enforcement. A 2009 state Supreme Court ruling hasn’t helped. In that case, a West Side officer who had clearly lied and ignored orders was reinstated, in part because it couldn’t be clearly established that telling the truth was an essential function of the job.

The mind boggles.

In reaction to all of this, Knezovich says he will soon distribute a memo telling deputies they will lose their jobs for lying, drunken driving or committing other crimes while on duty. He shakes his head that such obvious items must be put in writing. He expects union push-back.

The sheriff also notes that the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs is discussing the possibility of a bill that would limit arbitrator discretion. Under the change, arbitrators could only overturn employee dismissals if they disagreed with factual findings. If there was agreement, as there was in the Travis Smith case, the punishment would stand.

This and other reforms are warranted to reverse the decline in respect for law enforcement, which is too often self-inflicted.

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