Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and the local chapter of the NAACP announced Wednesday they signed a memorandum of understanding last year to address racial equity.
The agreement was signed in September 2019 but not publicized until this week.
“Integrity invites transparency and seeks out accountability, and in this particular dynamic and in this relationship … basically the whole thing is historic,” said Curtis Robinson, president of the Spokane NAACP.
The agreement requires the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office to take three steps: conduct an internal cultural inventory using an outside source; develop a race equity strategic plan that is sustainable and long term; and commission a report about stops, arrests and uses of force broken down by race, gender and location.
Ed Byrnes, a professor of social work at Eastern Washington University, has already begun analyzing sheriff’s office data to satisfy the agreement’s first element.
That analysis found that Black individuals make up 1.4% of the county’s population but account for 6.6% of arrests by sheriff’s deputies.
Native individuals make up 1.4% of the population but account for 2.9% of county arrests.
Other racial groups’ arrests rates were comparable to their population size.
“Civilians who are Black, or Native American, were arrested at a percentage that is greater than their representation in the general county population. This disproportionality was at a level beyond what random chance would predict for Black civilians,” wrote Byrnes in a report on the initial data analysis.
Knezovich and Robinson said the next step is to figure out why this is the case, hopefully with insights from a more extensive data set to be pulled next month.
“We do have a disparity in two of our demographic categories, and we have to know why,” Knezovich said. “We are committed to trying to address whatever drivers it may be, and I think it’s important we are willing to have that courageous conversation from all angles.”
Knezovich said he and Robinson plan to select a group to begin the internal cultural inventory by the end of the month. The inventory will evaluate the department’s racial inclusion and race equity-based competence, along with incorporating community accountability mechanisms, according to the agreement.
Kiantha Duncan, vice president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, said it is important to acknowledge that this working relationship between the two organizations has been ongoing for the past year, prior to COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd.
“We definitely want to make sure that credit is given and seen for the work that was happening prior to this time,” Duncan said.
Robinson said the signing of the agreement was precipitated by community response to the firing of Spokane County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. Jeff Thurman in June 2019.
Thurman was fired after an internal investigation found he spoke of killing Black people and sexually harassed a female deputy on his helicopter crew. Subsequently, Thurman filed a defamation claim against the sheriff’s office seeking nearly $12.5 million in damages.
Robinson said that by taking decisive action Knezovich sent the right message to the community that racist sentiments would not be tolerated on the force.
The NAACP and several other activist groups in Spokane, including Spokane Community Against Racism and the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington wrote a letter to the sheriff’s office after the incident, asking for many of the things that ended up in the current agreement .
The sheriff’s office said the agreement had not been announced publicly until now but was known among community members.
Knezovich said he has been discussing expanding the sheriff’s office’s youth outreach programs with Robinson and also working on avenues to recruit people of color into the law enforcement profession.
“The message that they hear is it’s not worth wearing, quite frankly, that the badge is racist. And if they do, then they’re no longer part of their own community,” Knezovich said. “Those are barriers we have to strip and we have to break because I need my community – I mean all of my community – to step up and do this job, to take a chance and wear this badge.”
Knezovich said this is the first time he has been so “boldly” invited to the table by the NAACP and is thankful for the opportunity.
Both Knezovich and Robinson took time to address the systemic issues that contribute to inequity in the criminal justice system, including the school-to-prison pipeline and generational cycles of poverty and incarceration.
While Knezovich said he can’t fix the larger problems with systemic racism in society, he hopes to do his part to make progress.
“I hope that this partnership develops not just relationships but friendships. Trust is the number one thing that needs to come out of this,” Knezovich said. “And that’s on both sides of the badge.
“We all want the same thing: a better society,” Knezovich added.
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