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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Law needed to ensure public trusts law enforcers

If a police chief or sheriff fires a law enforcement officer for committing a crime or lying in official reports or to supervisors, how is the public harmed?

Unfortunately, the law ignores the broader implications, while granting wayward crime fighters a wide berth. And for the second year in a row, their influential supporters have triumphed in Olympia.

Senate Bill 5668 was co-sponsored by Sens. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, and Michael Baumgartner, R-Spokane. Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, sponsored a similar bill in the House. Both measures would have prevented labor arbitrators from overturning the punishment decisions of sheriffs and police chiefs if the facts are not in dispute. Both bills died late last week without a vote, meaning no legislators had to go on record. We appreciate the efforts of these local lawmakers, who sponsored the bills at the urging of frustrated Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich. But we would have liked to have seen votes, so the public could identify those who are defending the indefensible.

A number of law enforcement representatives testified for the status quo at a Senate committee hearing, saying the bill was “a solution in search of a problem.”

No problem, eh? All 39 county sheriffs endorsed the bill because it’s too difficult to fire wayward deputies, which, in turn, cripples crimefighting. It also harms prosecutions when known liars are cross-examined in court.

The problem was exacerbated by a 2009 state Supreme Court decision that upheld the reinstatement of Kitsap County Deputy Sheriff Brian LaFrance, who was fired for 29 documented incidents of misconduct, including lying. The court noted that it couldn’t be proven that telling the truth was an essential job function. This is precisely the reason lying was highlighted in the bills.

The bills’ critics also made this diversionary point: “Often when an arbitrator reinstates an employee it is because the process was flawed or there was an incomplete investigation.” This is not what the bill addresses. Sometimes when the arbitrator and the supervisor agree on the facts, the arbitrator will still overrule. The bill states that arbitrators would be barred from doing this if the supervisor has established “clear and convincing evidence.”

For instance, an arbitrator did not dispute the facts when Sheriff Knezovich fired Deputy Travis Smith for criminal misconduct, but she reinstated him anyway, saying in part that his acts of slashing the upholstery of a car with a knife and ticketing a woman nine times for a single stop didn’t occur in public view.

Decisions like that serve as disincentives to discipline officers, and they damage public trust.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs supports efforts to strengthen the hands of supervisors, but it did not make it a legislative priority this session. Padden said getting that endorsement is important. WASPC executive director Mitch Barker said the board chose to wait a year to try to work with labor leaders on language they would find acceptable. We’ll be watching to see how that develops because this is definitely a problem in search of a solution.

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