A Spokane County undersheriff received a four-week unpaid suspension in January after he joked to a member of the Spokane Valley Precinct staff that “ex-wives should be killed.”
John Nowels’ comment became the focus of an internal affairs investigation after it was brought up in a deposition for the ongoing lawsuit filed by former Deputy Jeff Thurman, who was fired for making racially insensitive remarks.
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Nowels say the comment is now being used as political fodder in the aftermath of Knezovich’s announcement that he would not seek reelection.
Nowels reported the incident himself hours after the deposition and took responsibility for his actions, Knezovich said. Knezovich said in his time as sheriff he has never meted out such a large suspension. It cost Nowels $12,000 in lost wages.
“I hope it made it very very clear that this type of behavior is unacceptable and depending on again the facts behind it, you could lose your job,” Knezovich said of his punishment of Nowels. “Sadly the politics have started in the sheriff’s office because of my impending retirement.”
Experts say that how a leader handles misconduct sets the tone for a department as a whole.
“If you’re going to be a leader in public safety, maintaining your integrity is key,” said Stephen James, an expert on police performance and fatigue and assistant professor in the Washington State University College of Nursing.
“Just looking at the timeline inside of that IA report, it appeared that his inappropriate comments were affecting the work, affecting the job, (Nowels) went straight to the sheriff and self-reported,” James said after reading the internal affairs documents.
“I do think that speaks well of the agency in terms of holding themselves accountable.”
Nowels made the comment in July 2019. He had called the Valley precinct to discuss the work status of a deputy embroiled in a custody dispute with his ex-wife, who had filed a domestic violence protection order against him.
When the Valley chief was unavailable, Nowels told the assistant, as recorded in her notes, “ok… ya know, somebody should just kill her,” in reference to the deputy’s ex-wife who filed the protection order.
He also made a comment to the effect of “ex-wives – all they do is cause trouble.”
Both Nowels and the assistant’s account of the statement are similar but neither said they remember the words verbatim. Nowels told investigators that he immediately corrected himself and told the assistant he did “not literally mean” what he had said.
The comments were not reported until November, according to internal investigative records recently obtained through a public records request.
Protection orders often prohibit the defendant from possessing fire arms.
The deputy had to appear before a judge before being allowed to return to work and carry his department-issued sidearm. The case was resolved shortly after Nowels’ call and the deputy went back to work.
“At its heart you know it’s sexist, you know it’s close to being misogynistic at some point,” James said, noting the comment being made to a woman makes it more egregious.
“I regret that I said it without really understanding the ramifications,” Nowels said last week. “That’s not in my heart who I am.”
Nowels said in an interview that while it’s no excuse, he was frustrated with the system and how long it took the deputy to get before a judge after an investigation into the allegations had concluded.
The staff assistant said she understood Nowels to be joking, but she found the conversation “ironic” because Sgt. Jeff Thurman had been recently fired for what she characterized as making an off-the-cuff remark.
Thurman was fired in June 2019 after an internal investigation found a pattern of misconduct that included sexually harassing a female deputy on his helicopter crew and speaking of killing Black people.
The assistant told her boss, Valley precinct Chief Mark Werner, that she was not offended by Nowels. A short time later, Werner cautioned Nowels about making such offensive comments.
Werner wrote in his statement to investigators, “Neither (assistant) or I believed he intended to kill anyone or wished to see anyone killed; just as comments Sgt. Thurman was alleged to have made (although if stated are highly offensive and inappropriate) does not necessarily make him a racist.”
While Werner and Nowels discussed the incident shortly after it occurred, no report to internal affairs was made until Nowels was asked about the comment in a deposition for a lawsuit filed by Thurman.
“After completing the deposition and realizing that (assistant) had been offended enough by our conversation that she shared it with someone else, I realized I needed to report the conversation to the Sheriff and Internal Affairs for investigation into a potential policy violation,” Nowels wrote in the investigative report.
Thurman’s attorney did not immediately respond to request for comment.
“It should have been handled at the time it happened, not months later and only after it came out at the deposition,” Knezovich said.
Knezovich said there has been disagreement among his command staff on whether Thurman should have been fired, likely leading to the Nowels comments being mentioned to Thurman’s attorney.
Policy violations by leadership in law enforcement can often create the precedent that the behavior is acceptable unless swift action is taken by the chief or sheriff, said Richard Bennett, professor of justice at American University.
“Leadership sets the tone,” Bennett said.
Bennett, who earned his Ph.D. at Washington State University, researches police organization and procedures along with comparative criminology, and comparative criminal justice.
“If the leader shows no regard for abusive language or racial slurs … the consequences are there,” Bennett said.
In a statement to investigators, Nowels acknowledged that issue, writing, “as an Undersheriff and a leader of this agency, I failed to live up to the high standards expected of me.”
While there are often negative consequences to not addressing such comments, there are also often positive outcomes from leadership taking swift definitive action, Bennett said.
A summary of the incident was sent to all command staff who were required to debrief their deputies.
Knezovich said neither the Nowels nor Thurman incidents are reflective of the larger culture of the Sheriff’s Office.
“To jump to culture because two people said something I think is a big leap,” Knezovich said. “If you take a look at the comments, they’re drastically different, the people that said it – their actions are drastically different.”
When discipline rises to the point of termination, Knezovich said, there are a myriad of factors to consider including labor laws and the potential for arbitration or a lawsuit.
“We have to face very strict and onerous labor laws and if I do it wrong I will be sued,” Knezovich said. “That is the ultimate challenge and we cannot risk it.”
The incident becoming public is something James said he is conflicted on because it could erode public trust further, especially among nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd.
“It could potentially do more harm to erode the public confidence in the agency,” James said. “I think the public always has a right to know about the conduct of public employees as long as it doesn’t impede an investigation.”
“Although it’s sad that comments are made like that in 2019, it was dealt with and dealt with in an administrative sense pretty quickly,” James said. “I believe that the punishment, you know 160 hours without pay, is a substantial slap on the wrist.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.