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Saturday, January 25, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane County Sheriff’s Office struggles with filling deputy openings

Spokane Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, crossing Monroe on Friday, is concerned about the scarcity of law enforcement candidates. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, crossing Monroe on Friday, is concerned about the scarcity of law enforcement candidates. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

After Micah Xavier Johnson shot and killed five Dallas police officers, wounded seven of their colleagues and two civilian bystanders in an ambush at a demonstration against police violence a year ago, 99 Dallas police officers quit before the year was over.

That ambush was also the main reason three Spokane County deputies handed in their badges.

“I know we are on the other side of the country,” Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said, “but they resigned because their families couldn’t deal with the fact that officers in the United States are being assassinated.”

Since 2012, the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has had 10 to 20 open positions it’s been struggling to fill.

Knezovich said when he joined the force 27 years ago and was looking for his first job, there were times when he competed against 1,000 people for just a handful of openings.

“Now I have 20 open positions and we are lucky if we get 100 or 150 applicants,” Knezovich said. “When I ask those not in law enforcement if they’d like to join us, I’ve yet to find more than a handful who say yes.”

And Knezovich’s staffing problem is not likely to improve anytime soon.

He said 33 percent of Spokane County deputies are age 53 or older, which means they can retire anytime. Knezovich said that number may grow to 50 percent within the next five years.

“You bet I’m worried. We have got to hire some people,” Knezovich said. “But it’s become very difficult to get people to apply.”

Earlier this year, the Boston Police Department made a push to hire minority recruits and attracted 1,536 candidates for the initial civil service exam – 1,000 fewer than what the department had hoped for.

In January, the New York City Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association told American Police Beat online magazine that 506 officers had retired early from New York City’s 35,000-member police force. That’s up 20 percent from 2015. At the same time, a membership survey showed that eight out of 10 members said they would leave the force if they could find another job.

The story is the same for many agencies across the country. But the largest police force in the Inland Northwest hasn’t been hurt by the trend.

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said his agency is staffed fully and he is not too worried about future vacancies.

“I know it is a problem for many agencies, but I’d say we have not felt it yet,” Meidl said.

He added that he has lateral transfers – officers who have already spent some time with other agencies – waiting to fill positions that come open soon.

Meidl said his force also is getting closer to retirement age.

“We always play catch up with retirement,” Meidl said, but SPD has nine candidates going through the Spokane Police Academy. “They are excellent candidates. I feel like we have a little backfill.”

Why it’s more difficult for the sheriff to find applicants than it is for the police chief in the same county is hard to pin down, but Philip Tyler, former president of the NAACP and a former sheriff’s deputy, said county jobs sometimes are considered more dangerous.

“You may be in a rural area and it may be just you out there,” Tyler said. “If something happens, you may be 20 or 30 minutes away from backup. Some deputies have gotten in trouble while waiting.”

An urban area is saturated with officers, Tyler said, and officers may be partnered up.

“If something happens, then there is a lot more officers around,” Tyler said. “You aren’t alone. That’s a huge difference.”

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund keeps track of how officers die in the line of duty.

In 2016, 66 law enforcement personnel died from gunshots, up from the 10-year low of 34 in 2013 but lower than the 70 who were shot and killed in 2007. An average of 54 officers in the United States were killed by gunshots each year over the past 10 years.

Over the past decade, shootings have claimed the most officers every year except in 2008, when 45 officers were killed in car crashes and 41 were shot.

“There is no question about it, these are dangerous jobs,” Knezovich said. “It’s not for everyone.”

The FBI did a study of the “mindsets and behaviors” of 50 assailants who killed 64 officers in 53 incidents in 2016.

All the assailants were male and between 14 and 68 years old and almost half of them were white.

The study found, “The majority of assailants attacked law enforcement for one or two reasons: they expressed a desire to kill law enforcement or they felt as if they were going to lose their freedom by going back to jail or prison.”

The study also found an increasing number of people are under the influence of drugs when contacted by police, and some law enforcement reported seeing “an escalation toward violence” by those under the influence.

Perhaps the most significant finding was about morale: “Nearly every police official interviewed agreed that for the first time, law enforcement not only felt that their national political leaders publicly stood against them, but also that politicians’ words and actions signified that disrespect to law enforcement was acceptable” in the aftermath of the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Neither Meidl nor Knezovich could identify crime trends in the Spokane area that would have an especially chilling effect on applications.

Knezovich maintains that the biggest chilling effect comes from law enforcement officers being shot.

He added that it’s rare that his deputies are randomly threatened or heckled in the field.

Meidl said every time a video scrutinizing police violence goes viral, his officers get heckled more, but it’s not a big issue.

“We get much more of the expression ‘Thank you for your service,’ ” Meidl said.

He added that the biggest difference today compared to 10 or 15 years ago is how quickly news about an officer being shot travels via social media.

“Within minutes we all know about an officer getting shot or ambushed in another part of the country,” Meidl said. “And that raises our awareness here in Spokane. Some officers handle that very well, others stress themselves out.”

Knezovich said the only effect legalization of marijuana has had is stopping some candidates from applying.

“It’s still not legal federally,” Knezovich said, “and it’s pretty simple: You can’t smoke dope and work for the sheriff at the same time.”

The low number of applicants is a problem for many agencies, said Rex D. Caldwell, a retired police chief and the deputy director of training delivery for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.

Caldwell said when he applied for a job in Kirkland in 1981, there were 250 qualified applicants for three open positions.

“Then, when I was chief of police in Mukilteo (Washington) between 2011 and 2015 we got 20 qualified applications for an open position,” Caldwell said.

Through his work on police training development, he’s recently visited seven states examining training and recruitment programs for WSCJ and the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training.

He found that millennials aren’t interested in long-term blue-collar jobs, especially when careers in high-tech industries promise to pay much more.

The biggest issue in Washington, Caldwell said, is the pay discrepancy among agencies.

At the website, Caldwell said candidates browse jobs in 200 police departments at the same time.

“And you can find a job in Seattle and make $90,000 compared to maybe $40,000 in a smaller community,” Caldwell said. “It’s not hard to guess where people are going to go.”

A strong economy doesn’t help either.

“When the economy does better there are tons of other jobs out there,” Caldwell said. “And, to put it delicately, our reputation in the profession is not what it used to be.”

Social media have made it easy to share videos and photos of police encounters that end in disaster, said Spokane Valley Police Chief Mark Werner.

The past five years have brought what Werner calls “immense scrutiny” to his profession.

“I don’t mind the accountability. If we screw up, we should be held accountable, absolutely,” Werner said. “From a law enforcement perspective, the constant negativity that’s portrayed a lot of the time makes people believe they don’t have to listen to us.”

Social media also means that accounts of police brutality or shootings travel more quickly across the country than they used to.

“Now we will hear about what an officer does on the other side of the country, but it sticks to all of us,” Werner said. “Even if we don’t have those specific problems here it still impacts us.”

The cumulative effect of negative media has put the biggest damper on law enforcement applications, Knezovich said.

“I do have some hope,” he added. “I have hope in those under 10 years old. They still think it’s cool to be a cop.”

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