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Tuesday, October 27, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Knezovich book covers union conflicts, failed legislation, personal attacks

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has written a book about his efforts to make it easier for sheriffs and top police brass to fire officers who lie on duty.

“The Price of Honor: Are we who we say we are?” is 83 pages, self-published and was released in August.

Knezovich said he wrote the book for leaders in law enforcement and the communities they serve.

“We have to be willing to hold our profession accountable, and by not doing so you create more damage,” Knezovich said in an interview about his book. “Law enforcement leaders across the board do want to keep people accountable. It’s just the system is against us in trying to do so.”

In the book, with a $15.99 cover price and available on Amazon, Knezovich revisits some of the cases in which he fired deputies only to have those decisions overturned by arbitrators or opposed by unions during his 14 years as sheriff. The opposition of these terminations, Knezovich wrote, is part of a larger problem: law enforcement leaders bowing to unions and not adhering to their values.

One of the first cases Knezovich discusses involves Joseph Mastel, who was fired for exposing himself to a barista at an Airway Heights espresso stand.

It happened shortly before Knezovich’s first campaign for sheriff after being appointed to the position in 2006. The termination was seen as a “litmus test” for the sheriff prior to the election. The firing was overturned by the Civil Service Commission, which Knezovich says was politically motivated. He said members of the commission previously supported his opponent.

In a chapter entitled “Latte & Sausage,” Knezovich details his philosophy on termination as outlined by the Mastel case.

“The closest thing to killing someone you will ever do is fire them,” Knezovich writes. “You are taking everything they have away from them: the way they feed their family, maintain the roof over their heads, everything.”

During his tenure , Knezovich says he has terminated about 75 deputies, something he attributes to strong leadership.

Public records show 76 deputies forced to leave. Specifically, the records disclose 31 terminations with 6 of those officers on some type of training or probationary period. Records show 18 deputies resigned in lieu of being fired , with another 27 retiring or resigning.

Knezovich said the discrepancy is due to changes in personnel at the Office of Professional Standards. The deputies listed as retired or resigned actually resigned in lieu of termination, Knezovich said.

Resigning in lieu of termination allows a deputy to acknowledge the sheriff’s office has a complaint that could lead to their termination while avoiding an actual termination on their record.

Knezovich said there was not a discussion on whether it was appropriate for him to access records for publication in a personal project. He did have the legal department review a final copy of the book before it went to press and said all the information found in the book is publicly available.

Knezovich used fake names or or didn’t use names of those he didn’t consider politicians.

“I didn’t want to cause anybody more heartache than they already went through,” Knezovich said. “It’s a traumatic event, being terminated, and you know, why kick somebody when they’re down?”

‘Thou shalt not lie’

Knezovich uses the case of a deputy he fired in 2011 to illustrate the issue an arbitration system that allows deputies found to have lied on duty to keep their jobs.

Knezovich cites Rickert vs. State Public Disclosure Commission, a Washington State Supreme Court case that says falsehoods said about one candidate to another are allowable if they are not malicious.

However, the case also said the court does not want to judge when there is actual malice.

“The decisions invalidated a law that said actual malice made you liable,” local attorney, Jeffry Finer said. “The decision said we don’t want to judge when there is actual malice or not in political debate.”

Knezovich’s analysis of the Washington Supreme Court Decision is referenced throughout the book.

“Essentially, the decision by the majority of justices in this case made lying protected speech under the First Amendment,” he wrote.

While the law gives “carte blanche” to candidates lying about each other, Finer said, the law is limited to political candidates.

“This strictly has to do with running for office,” Finer said. “This is a very narrow ruling.”

While Finer said he does agree with Knezovich that this ruling could be the start of a “slippery slope,” currently it is only applicable to politicians running for office.

This means that while the Sheriff is subject to the ruling as a politician during a campaign, his deputies don’t have such an exemption while on duty. They are subject to the Brady Law, which requires prosecutors to disclose in court if a testifying officer has lied in the course of their official duties.

If an officer is on the “Brady List,” prosecutors are often unable to use their testimony in court.

Knezovich then takes issue with another Washington State Supreme Court decision, King County Sheriff’s Deputy Guild vs. King County.

In this case, a deputy had been fired for lying on duty. The case went to arbitration, where the arbitrator overturned his termination, not because they didn’t agree with the finding that the deputy had lied but because the “degree of discipline” administered was not justified.

The county appealed the arbitrator’s decision to the supreme court, arguing that the deputy would now be subject to Brady Rule disclosure. The court found that the Brady Rule is not explicit enough to justify termination since it does not provide guidance on the level of dishonesty that prohibits reinstatement.

For Knezovich, these two decisions are part of the “continuum of compromise” that he says jeopardizes not only law enforcement integrity but society in general.

The issue of unfavorable arbitration decisions has angered Knezovich for years, making it more difficult to fire deputies and have the decision stand.

Arbitration is often bargained into union contracts as a quicker and less expensive way to solve issues than civil court proceedings, Finer said.

“For organized law enforcement, which is just part of the labor movement, arbitration has turned into a very difficult problem for the management,” Finer said.

Changing the law

In 2010, Knezovich lobbied for a bill that would prevent arbitrators from overturning a termination decision if they found the officer had lied.

But the bill had strong opposition from unions, who said it would jeopardize bargaining agreements already in place and give sheriffs too much power.

“The unions went crazy and beat the Legislature into submission,” Knezovich wrote.

A “watered down” version of the bill became law, he said.

In 2012, Knezovich began to lobby for the bill again. During this time period, extensively detailed in the book, Knezovich says he was told to back off by the law enforcement unions in the state.

Knezovich quoted Sue Rahr, Director of the Washington State Training Commission, as saying: “Have you all forgotten who runs the State of Washington? The unions do.”

Rahr declined to comment on anything said in Knezovich’s book, saying she had not read it.

Unions did oppose the bill, worried it would give sheriffs too much power and supersede prior bargaining agreements.

“This legislation would allow a chief or a sheriff to make an accusation, investigate that accusation himself, be the judge and jury if that accusation was true, and then be the executor of the discipline for that,” Jamie Daniels, executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, told CBS News at the time.

Knezovich’s relationship with unions has changed over time. For five years prior to being appointed Sheriff, Knezovich served as president of the Spokane County Deputy Sheriff’s Association.

Since becoming Sheriff, however, Knezovich said he feels the unions have changed.

“Unions have kind of lost their heart, they’ve lost the focus of what they’re really supposed to be about, which is safety and livable wages,” Knezovich said. “Now, it seems that unions are more interested in protecting the lowest common denominator.”

By the time House Bill 1825, also known as the “Integrity First” bill, made it to the Law and Justice Committee in 2013, Knezovich had some support from fellow sheriffs but not from the unions.

Bill sponsor and committee chair Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said the bill met its demise when the unions and the sheriff couldn’t get on the same page.

“I was chairing the committee at that time and Ozzie (Knezovich) asked about this, and I thought there were some concerns about cases where I thought there was really overtly bad behavior,” Padden said, mentioning the Mastel case specifically.

After giving the bill a hearing, Padden said he encouraged labor groups to meet with the sheriff and his supporters to “get together and work this out.”

But the bill did not move forward.

“I thought there was some good points of the bill but it was a courtesy to Ozzie (Knezovich) at the time to introduce it,” Padden said.

After his push for the bill was unsuccessful, Knezovich wrote he had a target on his back.

Later that year, four retired Spokane County sheriff’s deputies created a political action committee called “Integrity First.”

The group focused on the bill, saying they planned to research Knezovich’s tough take on discipline.

“We are really bothered by Ozzie’s unrelenting focus on discipline and changing that law,” former Sgt. Dave Reagan told The Spokesman-Review at the time.

Earl Howerton, a founding member of “Integrity First,” declined to comment, and other members could not be reached .

Knezovich said in his book he detailed what he considers political insults and untruths to show not only how the Supreme Court’s decision on political lies is harmful but to show how good leadership comes at a price.

“I tried to be very careful in writing the book not to sound like I was whining about anything,” Knezovich said. “That would have been very easy to fall into.”

While more insults and back-and-forth ensued, Knezovich said he still remains steadfast in supporting a change in the law. He plans to work to get the bill proposed again during the 2021 legislative session.

Padden said he thinks Knezovich might have a better shot with a significant push for police reform following the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“It is an issue that will be discussed and looked at next session because now the democrats are into it,” Padden said.

Rep. Mike Volz, R-Spokane, said he has been discussing the bill with Knezovich and might propose something similar but not something that would violate existing union contracts.

“The sheriff and I have already talked a little bit about that. We’ll have to involve quite a few stakeholders,” Volz said. “I think it will at least get a shot. I think I would rather have a more moderate, reasoned approach than something that could be too far over one way or another.”

Knezovich said he believes many of the compromises have already happened.

“The bill we tried to pass was a very well written document that went through multiple layers of review by multiple different parties trying to come up with a consensus on what this should look like,” he said. “We have a fairly well-written bill and I would just refresh it and move it forward.”

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