Calling the process of selecting an ombudsman for the Spokane Police Department “a political nightmare,” Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich on Tuesday dismissed a petition requesting independent civilian oversight for his department as redundant.
“This is being driven by a few political opponents of mine,” Knezovich said at a news conference called a day before organizers planned to deliver more than 1,000 signatures to Spokane County commissioners requesting a new body to oversee operations of the Sheriff’s Office.
Signees include representatives from the Center for Justice, the Peace and Justice Action League and former Democratic Spokane County Commissioner Bonnie Mager, in addition to Doug Orr, who ran unsuccessfully against Knezovich last fall as a Republican, and state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley.
They say several recent high-profile cases involving use of force by Spokane County sheriff’s deputies, and a perceived lack of investigatory independence by the office’s Citizen Advisory Board, create a need for a body that is appointed by someone other than Knezovich.
“What we’re saying is, we need a system,” said Rick Eichstaedt, director of the Center for Justice and a petition organizer. “We’re saying, have a group that’s separate from the sheriff and can give him some cover, too.”
Knezovich said he had invited the Center for Justice in to observe the Citizen Advisory Board process, without a response. He also said he was wary of a process of appointment to a citizen review board that mimicked the city’s process, which has now gone eight months without selecting a new police ombudsman. Part of the delay resulted over the summer when the ombudsman’s chairman, Rachel Dolezal, was removed from the position by the City Council and two other members resigned – leaving the commission without enough members to conduct business.
The organization “melted down because it did not do background checks,” Knezovich said. He specifically mentioned Dolezal when referring to the failures of the commission. Dolezal was removed from the commission after revelations that she was representing herself as black, including on her commission application, even though she is white.
Eichstaedt said comparing the oversight of the police and the sheriff’s office was like “apples and oranges,” noting that the petition was not calling for a specific structure for civilian oversight of the sheriff’s office. A scandal in one office should not be grounds to avoid trying a similar system with other people, he said.
“We’ve had some bad elected officials, but does that mean we should give up representative government?” Eichstaedt said.
In October, Knezovich went before Spokane County commissioners and asked that Tim Burns, then-Spokane Police ombudsman, be allowed to perform similar duties for the Sheriff’s Office. That proposal went nowhere following last year’s election, and Knezovich said Tuesday that may have been for the best, given the turmoil that followed.
“Why would I want to join a failed system?” he said, adding that the main difference between the Spokane County Sheriff’s Civilian Oversight Board and the Office of the Police Ombudsman is “we’re running, and they’re not.”
Eichstaedt said the petition aims for the same type of oversight the sheriff requested last year.
“I don’t see this as something that should be threatening to him,” Eichstaedt said. “It’s something he ran on.”
Knezovich said the same members of the public who are now calling for a system similar to the city’s criticized Burns for his oversight in a 2010 case involving the sheriff’s office. That case was the death of Wayne Scott Creach, a Spokane Valley pastor who was shot and killed outside his home in August 2010 by Deputy Brian Hirzel. Hirzel, who was driving an unmarked patrol vehicle, shot when he felt threatened by Creach, who was armed. No criminal charges resulted from multiple reviews of the incident.
Knezovich said he could support a review board appointed by someone other than himself, but he was concerned about the process becoming “political.”
“You have someone who is deciding the future and fate of a person, you want to make sure they don’t have integrity issues,” Knezovich said.
Petition supporters planned to deliver their signatures to Spokane County Commissioners this morning at the courthouse.
Recently appointed Spokane ombudsman commissioner AJ VanderPol said independent oversight remains important.
“How it’s happened might be a failure, but the concept, that’s public will,” VanderPol said. “The people want oversight. That’s a fact.”
Staff writer Rachel Alexander contributed to this report.
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