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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County sheriff’s sergeant fired for racial slur, sexual harassment, talk of killing black people

Jeff Thurman of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office plays with his police dog, Laslo, on Feb. 24, 2017. He was fired on June 13, 2019, after an internal investigation found he allegedly spoke of killing black people and sexually harassed a female deputy on his helicopter crew. He denies the allegations and is suing Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich for defamation. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A Spokane County sheriff’s sergeant was fired Thursday after an internal investigation found he spoke of killing black people and sexually harassed a female deputy on his helicopter crew.

Sgt. Jeff Thurman, an 18-year veteran of the sheriff’s office who worked in Spokane Valley, was accused of starting a phone conversation with another deputy by asking: “You ready to kill some (racial slur) tonight or what?”

Thurman was off duty in December 2016 when he placed the call to the other deputy, who answered the call using a Bluetooth speaker while parked beside a third deputy in a separate patrol car, the sheriff’s office said. Both deputies who heard Thurman’s remark were on duty at the time.

Thurman was scheduled to appear Thursday afternoon for a meeting known as a Loudermill hearing, a due-process requirement for public employees. He did not show up, however, and instead provided a written statement to the sheriff’s office.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said Thurman’s employment was formally terminated after the scheduled meeting time passed. Thurman has 10 days to appeal the decision.

“This type of behavior will never be tolerated,” Knezovich said. “It’s reprehensible, and any deputy who dishonors his community and his badge this way, they will not work for the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.”

Attempts to reach Thurman for comment Thursday were unsuccessful, and the sheriff’s office did not immediately provide a copy of his written statement.

He was placed on paid administrative leave May 8, one week after the complaint about the racist remark was formalized.

Knezovich said the deputy who received the phone call from Thurman was troubled by the remark. During the internal investigation, the deputy said he had heard Thurman use the N-word before, usually when he was angry.

The deputy “didn’t condone it at all,” Knezovich said.

The other deputy who heard the remark – who is African American, according to Knezovich – raised concerns about it with three supervisors but always sought confidentiality and not a formal investigation.

“The deputy that finally brought this forward went to three different supervisors and said, ‘I want to bounce this off you, but I don’t want you to do anything about it. I don’t want a formal complaint,’ ” Knezovich said.

“Quite frankly, those supervisors should have brought it forward,” Knezovich said. “With something like this, you have to bring it forward. These things have to be sent up the chain, and they have to be dealt with.”

The complaint wasn’t formalized until the president of the deputies union, Kevin Richey, heard about it and contacted another sergeant, Aaron Myhre, who alerted Knezovich.

“I just did what I thought was right,” said Richey, who is also the mayor of Airway Heights.

Knezovich said the three sergeants remain under investigation for failing to initiate an investigation. The supervisors were “contrite” for not acting sooner, Knezovich said.

Thurman worked as a K-9 handler and as a tactical flight officer on the sheriff’s office helicopter crew.

While looking into the racist remark, internal investigators interviewed a female deputy who was recently selected for the flight crew, Knezovich said. During that interview, she said that Thurman had sexually harassed her.

According to Knezovich, the crew was making plans for an out-of-town training, and Thurman told the woman: “Hey, you’re going to be rooming with me.” He also “made the statement that she would be coming back pregnant,” according to Knezovich.

“I don’t know in what world anybody thinks that’s remotely acceptable,” the sheriff said.

Another female deputy backed up the other deputy’s account of sexual harassment and said she, too, had heard Thurman use the N-word previously, according to Knezovich.

Knezovich said that throughout the investigation, Thurman did not accept responsibility for his actions and instead “tried to throw everybody under the bus.”

“He mitigated and blamed people, blamed victims,” Knezovich said. “He was the victim, and everybody else was out to get him.”

Previously, Thurman “had a fairly clean record except for a letter of reprimand here or there,” Knezovich said.

Thurman joined the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office as a deputy in 2001 after transferring from the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office. He often made headlines for arrests involving his prolific police dog, Laslo.

Knezovich expressed confidence that Thurman’s behavior was not a symptom of broader cultural problems within the department, noting other deputies came forward with additional allegations instead of rallying to support Thurman.

“They went, ‘OK, well he also did this, this and this,’ and they don’t want that within their ranks,” Knezovich said. “So, no, I’m not afraid of that type of culture.”

One other deputy was fired several years ago for using the N-word, Knezovich said.

Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, credited Knezovich for taking “swift action” after learning of the allegations against Thurman.

“Credit where credit’s due,” Robinson said. “I applaud the sheriff and his organization for taking the actions that they have. I think they’re also being called to take more.”

Robinson said Thurman’s long tenure with the sheriff’s office indicates there is an “undercurrent” of prejudice or bigotry that must be addressed.

“And when you look at the disparities represented in our local criminal justice system, it confirms that,” Robinson said. “I’m not surprised that the sheriff’s office has not been immune to that.”

“The reality is that these issues have been here for a long time,” he said. “They are still here today. And what are we going to do about it now?”