There will be a new sheriff in town come January, and it will be a Republican with at least two decades of experience in the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.
Undersheriff John Nowels and former sheriff’s office employees Wade Nelson and Michael Zollars are running to replace Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who chose not to seek a fifth term. Longtime deputy Craig Chamberlin pulled his name from the race in April.
Zollars, 56, left in September after 33 years with the department and took a sergeant position at the Kalispel Tribal Police Department in October. He said he has friends who work for Kalispel Tribal police and spoke with him about joining the agency.
He said it was an opportunity to help “modernize and professionalize” the department, and to allow some sheriff’s office employees to be promoted.
“I was leaving in a spot when I could know comfortably that things could be taken care of when I left, and would be taken care of well,” Zollars said.
He said he did not seriously consider running for sheriff when he left the office as a patrol lieutenant, but he decided the public needed options after Chamberlin dropped out of the race and Nowels was the lone candidate.
“I want to appeal to the common man,” Zollars said.
Chamberlin’s exit from the race also influenced Nelson to run. Nelson said he did not expect the office’s policies and vision to change if Nowels was elected.
“If we don’t change the direction we’re going, we’re going to continue to implode, so I decided that someone needs to step in and be that change,” Nelson said.
Nelson, 50, said he took a one-year leave of absence from the sheriff’s office before officially departing from the agency last month.
“I just didn’t want to have the leadership of who I’m running against to have authority over me while I’m running for sheriff … it’d make a difficult work environment for myself,” Nelson said of leaving in June.
He cited “frustration with the (office’s) administration” as the reason for the leave of absence.
“It really came down to – when I really, really think about it – it was the ethical differences that I have with the current administration on how they handle the discipline and the day-to-day stuff, and how we do it made our deputies, including myself, kind of feel … disconnected from them,” Nelson said.
Nowels, 49, has served as undersheriff the past three years and has been endorsed by Knezovich to replace him.
“For me, I think it means a lot to the public,” Nowels said of Knezovich’s endorsement. “I am finding on the campaign trail Ozzie’s endorsement is massively impactful. I think he really does have the support of the public.”
Nowels said the increase in violent crimes will be one of his focuses if elected.
He said residents are “extremely concerned about violent crime,” which is “on a level we have never seen here in Spokane.”
“We have drive-by shootings happening frequently,” he said. “We have gun battles in the streets in broad daylight. We didn’t see that 10 years ago. We didn’t see it five years ago, and we see it now. It is a huge threat to our community and to our safety. We have to start holding people accountable. It doesn’t mean we can’t do it humanely, doesn’t mean that we can’t try to fix people.”
Much of the violence is driven by gangs and narcotics trafficking, Nowels said. He said 40% of Spokane County homicides last year were related to drugs.
“I think we as a country need to start evaluating how we’re instilling the values that we hold dear into our youth, because our youth are more violent than they’ve ever been,” he said.
Nowels said attacking the drug problem would help alleviate violent crimes and other crimes as well.
“They are all interconnected,” he said.
Nowels said policies implemented at the state level the past 15 years or so are also responsible for the increased violence.
“We have not been holding convicted criminals accountable in a meaningful way in a long time,” he said.
Nelson said he wants to boost the low morale in the sheriff’s office, hire more deputies and increase transparency to the public to earn its trust back.
Zollars said he knows how to stretch a dollar and allow those savings to be distributed elsewhere in the department.
Zollars also said he’s built numerous contacts over his more than three decades at the sheriff’s office and 38 years as a volunteer firefighter and EMT at Spokane County Fire District 4.
“I have learned over time how to have a conversation about almost anything with almost anyone,” he said.
Zollars said relationships between the sheriff’s office and the state need to be fixed.
“We have a tenuous relationship with the Criminal Justice Training Commission,” he said.
Zollars said the sheriff’s office has an opportunity to mend fences with the commission, which establishes standards and provides training to law enforcement officers, while also getting more deputies and Spokane Police Department officers trained at a regional center to save money and be more efficient.
“If we regionalize a little bit more, I think we can make those dollars go further by economies of scale if you will,” he said.
Zollars and his wife at the time, Kristine Zollars, were accused in 1997 of embezzling about $35,000 over four years from the Reflection Lake Water Association near Elk. Zollars was president of the association and his wife served as treasurer. The Zollars were removed from the governing board months before the lawsuit was filed.
Zollars said he was never charged and never put on administrative leave by the sheriff’s office. The sheriff’s office conducted an internal investigation, the Washington State Patrol reviewed the investigation and the sheriff exonerated him of any wrongdoing. An attorney for Zollars denied the charges at the time.
Zollars said his wife entered an Alford plea, meaning she did not admit to the criminal act but that evidence of the crime would likely persuade a judge or jury to find her guilty. She was sentenced to jail time and ordered to pay restitution.
Nowels received a four-week unpaid suspension in 2020 after he joked to a member of the Spokane Valley Precinct staff that “ex-wives should be killed.”
Knezovich said later that year that Nowels took responsibility for his actions. It cost Nowels $12,000 in lost wages.
Nowels said the recent Blake decision, a Washington State Supreme Court ruling that said the state’s drug possession statute was unconstitutional, has made it extremely difficult for authorities to hold drug offenders accountable and has played a part in the uptick in violent crimes.
He said the Legislature needs to make a meaningful felony controlled substance law to combat violence. Nowels said arresting people is not the solution, “but that doesn’t mean that there’s not a role for an arrest.”
Law enforcement officers in Washington must provide a drug treatment referral to those in possession of a controlled substance in lieu of a citation or arrest. After the second referral, officers have the ability to issue a citation.
Nowels said the intent behind the law is admirable because lawmakers want to treat people first rather than arrest, but addicts rarely take advantage of treatment willingly. If they do find clarity in that short window of time to seek help, they likely won’t be able to get into a treatment center right away because they are booked.
Nowels suggested arresting people for a brief time for drug possession in order to interrupt their drug cycle and allow them time to engage in treatment. He said putting addicts into a treatment facility against their will might be the correct route, or at least allowing them to get sober so they can make the decision.
“We need to have a tool in our belt as law enforcement to interrupt that cycle of addiction long enough to get them into treatment,” he said.
Zollars said the state law should be changed because it’s not helpful. He said lawmakers are almost telling drug users it’s OK to use drugs.
“There has to be punishment,” he said. “And I will tell you from my nine years working property crimes investigations, drugs and property crimes are hand-in-hand.”
Plus, the two drug referrals are not being tracked, so it’s unclear how many times someone has been referred to a treatment program by an officer, Zollars said.
“Our Legislature seems to like to put things in place that are virtually unenforceable or are financially very, very costly to accomplish,” he said.
Similar to Nowels, Zollars proposed citing or arresting someone with drugs to compel that person to undergo treatment.
Nelson also said drugs and property crimes “go hand-in-hand.”
He said almost everyone has been touched by property crimes, but they seem to get the least amount of attention and accountability. Nelson wants to address that.
Nelson said legislation should be focused on rehabilitation programs so addicts can be productive members of society again. He said he understands law enforcement citing people for drug possession, but that’s not fixing the problem, so “we’re spinning our wheels.”
All three candidates said the sheriff’s office is short-staffed.
Zollars called the shortage “horrible,” and said there’s no wiggle room for deputies to take sick days or training days. Overtime hours are racking up.
The sheriff’s office boosted advertising campaign efforts last year by buying billboards in Denver, Portland, the Seattle area, North Idaho and Austin, Texas. It also spent $12,500 for two days of electronic billboard advertising in New York City’s Times Square.
The agency bumped hiring bonuses for lateral deputies – experienced deputies from other law enforcement agencies – to $25,000. Entry-level hires get a $10,000 bonus.
Earlier this month, Knezovich swore in five new deputies and one lateral deputy. The lateral deputy was from the New York Police Department.
Zollars said the sheriff’s office needs to focus its recruiting efforts locally. He said he is not convinced that potential recruits from larger cities across the country share the same values as people who live here.
“I don’t want someone that just wants to be in law enforcement,” he said. “I want someone that truly cares about this place.”
Like Zollars, Nelson also preferred to hire deputies from the area.
“If you can pull people from the very community they live to serve their community, there’s more buy-in,” Nelson said.
One way to do that would be to implement programs in local schools and colleges that showcase law enforcement as an honorable and rewarding career.
Nelson also proposed implementing an employee-incentive program where a sheriff’s office employee would receive a financial bonus for recruiting someone. The program would motivate employees and allow them to find people they want to work alongside.
Overall, Nelson said the agency needs to hire more deputies so it can serve the community properly.
“The problem is, is we have been, in my opinion, putting Band-Aids on things for a really long time,” he said.
Nelson said the sheriff’s office has told the public it will provide the best service, “but at some point, we have to be truthful and honest and say we are imploding. We don’t have the manpower to serve you as a community anymore and that’s where we are, and we have not gotten that message out.”
Nelson said more employees are leaving the sheriff’s office for other jobs and retiring early, mostly because of the “dark cloud” at the department, which also has contributed to the lack of deputies and other positions.
“At some point when the stress of the job and you’re working so many hours, it … becomes a dark cloud, and that’s where we’re at,” Nelson said.
The lack of deputies is one of the factors contributing to the spike in crime and delays from Crime Check in calling victims back, he said.
“It’s not Crime Check is broken,” Nelson said. “It’s, there’s nobody to come to your call because we have nobody on the road, and that needs to be fixed.”
Nowels said the sheriff’s office is getting extremely close to filling its vacant positions. In 18 months, he believes the agency will fill the 18 positions county commissioners have approved, plus other additions.
He credited the Spokane Valley City Council and county commissioners for bumping deputies’ salaries to a competitive market rate. He said the agency was lagging 20% -25% behind Spokane police’s pay.
“That alone has had a significant impact in our recruiting,” he said.
Sea of red
All three candidates are Republicans, but Zollars wasn’t concerned about it.
“Safety isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue,” he said.
He said Democrats are advocates of social programs, which he supports as well, as long as they are properly funded and have measurable and responsible objectives being met.
Zollars said he wants to create safety for everyone.
“We have to be tough on crime,” Zollars said, adding that could be punishment, rehabilitation or both.
Nelson also said he doesn’t care if someone is a Democrat or Republican.
“I serve both of you equally,” he said.
Nowels said he operates on “American values,” including liberty and accountability, and if everyone can agree on those, they can get through their ideological differences and solve problems.
“It has nothing to do with Republican or Democrat,” he said. “It has everything to do with, ‘Hey, we’re all citizens on this great planet. Let’s work it out.’ ”
Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs
said he had chatted with Nelson for about an hour. He also listened to the candidates in a Spokane News sheriff candidate debate.
Beggs said he found Nelson to be the most open to innovative law enforcement practices and solutions to homelessness and jail crowding problems.
“He seemed to be more open to meeting with all community members and, again, open to doing things differently than we’ve seen the last 12 years,” Beggs said. “And I think people are really looking forward to change.”
Beggs, who ran as a Democrat against Larry Haskell for county prosecutor in 2014, said he is not particularly worried about the all-Republican field because it’s challenging for Democrats to win county races. He’s focused on what the candidates will bring to the table and how open they are to serving everyone in the county.
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