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Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich endorses undersheriff in November election

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich listens to Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell on Friday during a news conference at the Public Safety Building.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich listens to Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Haskell on Friday during a news conference at the Public Safety Building. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Undersheriff John Nowels admits there’s not a lot he’d change about the approach of the man whose job he’s hoping to take.

“Sheriff Ozzie has been a huge advocate for this community,” Nowels, 49, said in an interview this week. “I understand what his vision for Spokane has been, and what it is going into the future. I have a similar vision for it.”

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who’s been in office since 2006, said he’ll make good on his announcement three years ago not to seek a fifth elected term as the leader of the Sheriff’s Office. He’s thrown his weight, as a popular incumbent routinely receiving greater than 70% of the vote, behind Nowels, a veteran of the office since 1998 and a member of Knezovich’s command staff for the past seven years.

Knezovich said in an interview the endorsement was not one he made “lightly.”

“He earned it over all these years,” the sheriff said.

Nowels, a 1991 graduate of Central Valley High School and a 1996 graduate of Eastern Washington University, said his main goal will be to increase the familiarity community members have with sheriff’s deputies. It’s important that residents have a trusting relationship with law enforcement, he said.

“We’re the first touch to the government for a lot of these people,” he said. “They’ve got to trust that we’re going to help them navigate the programs that are out there for them.”

Nowels has served in several roles within the office, including most recently overseeing its Intelligence and Investigations Division. He started as a patrol deputy, before working traffic collisions and then as a detective handling property crime and narcotics investigations.

Two years ago, he was suspended without pay for four weeks after making a comment to a member of the Spokane Valley precinct that ex-wives should be killed. It was made during a phone conversation about a deputy who was involved in a domestic violence incident, and Nowels self-reported the incident once it came up in a deposition about another deputy facing discipline, the now-fired Jeffrey Thurman.

Nowels repeated in an interview that the comment was not meant seriously and that it was said out of frustration .

“I need to say what I mean, and mean what I say,” Nowels said. Both Knezovich and Nowels have said they believe the issue was raised by opponents of the sheriff’s selection as his preferred successor.

If elected, Nowels will inherit an agency that has had to lean heavily into recruiting in order to fill vacancies. The Sheriff’s Office reported as many as 20% of its positions were vacant at one point last year, and needed to hire 20 more deputies this year to offset retirements.

“There’s no singular solution to the hiring problem in law enforcement,” Nowels said, praising county commissioners and the Spokane Valley City Council for laying out money to provide competitive wages for incoming workers, including bonuses for lateral hires – deputies brought in, already trained, from other agencies. He said the office should continue to require high standards for new employees and build on its reputation to bring in recruits.

For much of Knezovich’s term, attention has been turned to the status of the county’s aging and overcrowded jail. Built in 1986, the jail has pushed up against its capacity multiple times in the past three decades. Lawmakers have looked at several options to increase its capacity or replace it with a new facility.

Nowels, who filed as a Republican and has served as a party precinct committee officer, said the community should also be asking questions about what mental health and substance abuse facilities are available when considering any changes to the jail.

“We have to believe in accountability, that’s an American value,” Nowels said. “Individual accountability is important, but we also believe that an individual has worth.”

Knezovich said the debate about a new jail tended to overshadow the bigger picture issue that remains as he leaves the office he ascended to, seemingly out of the blue, 16 years ago.

“There is only one thing I regret, and that is to fix the broken criminal justice system that we have,” Knezovich said. “This is not about building a new jail. It was never about building a new jail.”

Knezovich said he’d long supported efforts to divert arrested people into treatment programs.

“A very key aspect that everyone wants to forget is we don’t want to create more victims,” Knezovich said. “This community is fed up with it.”

The sheriff also criticized recent state legislation that he said hampered efforts to investigate crime. Knezovich has testified frequently in Olympia on legislative issues during his tenure, and has been outspoken about extremists in both parties, including former state Rep. Matt Shea, who was removed from the House Republican Caucus after an independent investigation raised questions about his connections to anti-government protests like the standoff at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

Knezovich would not say whether he intends to run for any other office, though he lamented the creation of a new five-commissioner system for county government, which was created by the state Legislature. Those new seats will be up for election this fall.

“I haven’t made a decision,” Knezovich said, though he added that he wasn’t sure a county commission seat would allow him to weigh in on the policing issues brought up in the new Washington legislation.

Nowels said he would follow Knezovich’s example, if elected, in being outspoken about legislative issues affecting local law enforcement.

“What I would like is that they have an open dialog with us about our job, and talk about what effects legislation is going to have before they enact it,” Nowels said.

No other candidates have filed with the state’s Public Disclosure Commission for the sheriff’s office as of Thursday. Knezovich did not face a declared Democratic challenger in his last three elections, including 2010, when he ran unopposed.

The filing deadline with the Secretary of State to be on the ballot in the August primary is May 20.

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