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Sheriff pushes bill boosting panel’s power to fire officers

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich stands with other sheriffs and police chiefs to promote a new bill governing the procedure over officer firing on Tuesday in Spokane. (Jesse Tinsley)
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich stands with other sheriffs and police chiefs to promote a new bill governing the procedure over officer firing on Tuesday in Spokane. (Jesse Tinsley)

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is taking another run at closing a loophole in state law governing the firing of bad law enforcement officers.

On Tuesday, he enlisted support of other sheriffs and police chiefs in the Inland Northwest in calling for a bill to give the Washington State Criminal Justice Commission greater authority to revoke the certification of law enforcement officers who lie or commit crimes.

State Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, is the prime sponsor.

In recent years, Knezovich has fired a deputy and a jail officer only to have them returned to service by state arbitrators who said the firings were too severe a punishment despite proof of wrongdoing.

“This is about our profession, and it’s about public trust,” Knezovich said during a press conference with his fellow sheriffs and chiefs. They asked residents to contact their legislative representatives in support of the bill.

Knezovich said that being forced by arbitrators to retain officers who should be fired is a problem that needs fixing.

A year ago, he sought a bill that would require an arbitrator to uphold a firing with evidence of wrongdoing.

The bill ran into opposition from organized law enforcement officers and died in the Legislature. They had raised concerns about adequate due process for officers facing dismissal.

The new bill – Senate Bill 6218 – seeks to overcome the opposition by creating a new layer of proceedings.

The criminal justice commission, which certifies officers when they complete their training, would hold its own proceeding on revocation in cases of officers lying or receiving criminal convictions.

Knezovich has enlisted the support of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which has made the bill its top priority this session. He is currently president of the WASPC board.

Don Pierce, legislative director for WASPC, said cases where officers are ordered back to their jobs despite findings of wrongdoing are relatively rare.

Last year, a state arbitrator ruled that a Washougal police officer should be given his job back even though the officer punched a mentally ill man multiple times, according to the Columbian newspaper of Vancouver.

In 2010, Spokane County Deputy Travis Smith was reinstated by an arbitrator after he stabbed a knife into a car seat and wrote up nine infractions to the driver after the driver made a comment Smith did not like.

The arbitrators said firing was too harsh.

Currently, the training commission can revoke a law officer’s certificate for lying on an application, failing to meet training requirements, getting fired and having the firing upheld, or being convicted of a felony.

Under the bill, the commission could revoke certification of an officer for lying in an official proceeding, being convicted of a felony or gross misdemeanor while on duty, and being convicted of a felony or one of several gross misdemeanors while off duty. Those gross misdemeanors are fourth-degree assault, third-degree theft and malicious mischief.

An officer would still go to arbitration before the commission could revoke the officer’s certificate.

Jamie Daniels, executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, said her organization, which represents commissioned officers, agrees that bad officers should be fired but has concerns about due process for officers.

“It’s a community safety issue and an officer safety issue that people respect police,” she said.

Padden said he is optimistic he can get the legislation to the floor of the Senate, but he is not sure it will survive in the House, where organized labor has strong political support.

Idaho currently has a law that allows its training council to revoke certifications for lying or wrongdoing.

Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger said he is “flabbergasted” that Washington doesn’t have the same law.

Stevens County Sheriff Kendle Allen said, “It seems bizarre to me we need to be here to be having this conversation.”

Knezovich said, “The citizens of this community, especially this community, very much want this (bill) to happen,” Knezovich said.

The bill comes amid a backdrop of other debates about use of force and officer wrongdoing.

Citizens in Spokane have voted strongly in favor of a stronger police ombudsman to provide independent oversight of police wrongdoing.

Mayor David Condon and Knezovich both are seeking body cameras for their officers.

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