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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Blame abounds after culture audit of Spokane County Sheriff’s Office fails

Left to right, community member Curtis Hampton, Spokane County NAACP President Kurtis Robinson, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Spokane County NAACP Vice President Kiantha Duncan announce a joint agreement at a press conference on Wednesday.   (Emma Epperly / The Spokesman-Review)

An academic study designed to measure attitudes on racial diversity and workplace culture within the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office fell apart last year amid a lack of participation from deputies.

Called a culture audit, the review conducted by Eastern Washington University’s Office for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion was part of a memorandum of understanding between the local chapter of the NAACP and the sheriff’s office signed in 2019.

The agreement was spurred in the aftermath of racist and violent comments allegedly made by a deputy that resulted in Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich firing the deputy. The audit was envisioned as an examination of the culture within the sheriff’s department that allowed a deputy to feel free to make racist remarks.

The final six-page report came in October 2021 and was a disappointment to those involved as just 16% of sheriff’s office staff participated by taking a questionnaire, a key part of the audit.

Due to the low response rate, the audit committee was unable to draw conclusions about the sheriff’s office culture. The committee suggested creating a new group with more authority that could conduct another audit this year.

Kurtis Robinson, first vice president of the Spokane NAACP, and Shari Clarke, chief diversity officer at EWU, blamed the lack of participation on the sheriff’s office.

“I’ve seen the sheriff’s office be very intentionally determined,” Robinson said. “I did not see that same kind of determination and drive reflected in this, especially towards the end.”

Knezovich blamed poor communication and a lack of flexibility on the part of both EWU and the NAACP as reasons for the poor response rate to the survey.

“We actually tried to get the response rate up; however, the deputies really didn’t trust the NAACP,” Knezovich said.

His office struggled to communicate that EWU was conducting the audit as an independent group, Knezovich said.

“All they saw was NAACP,” Knezovich said,, calling the university’s independence “debatable.”

Knezovich also criticized Robinson for statements he made during protests following the death of George Floyd in the summer of 2020.

The sheriff felt the comments were “racially charged and blaming.”

“He can be critical but it should be critical when it’s deserved,” Knezovich said. “I don’t trust Kurtis (Robinson) anymore.”

Robinson said he hopes to have a continued working relationship with the sheriff’s office but indicated the sheriff’s “fragility” when criticized has stymied progress.

Why a culture audit?

In June of 2019, Knezovich fired Sgt. Jeff Thurman after an internal investigation determined he spoke about killing Black people.

Thurman has since filed a defamation claim against the sheriff’s office, which remains pending in Spokane County Superior Court.

In the wake of Thurman’s alleged comments, the NAACP and the sheriff’s office entered into a memorandum of understanding, in part to address why Thurman felt comfortable making racist comments, Robinson said.

The agreement called on the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office to take three steps: conduct an internal culture 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.

EWU was tasked with conducting the culture audit in 2020 and formed an audit committee of 12 people consisting of EWU faculty, staff, and community members.

The committee sent the sheriff’s office a list of questions in September 2020, which led to a meeting a month later in which issues regarding terminology and the intent of questions were clarified, according to the audit’s final report.

The audit committee put together a survey — to be filled out anonymously — of 48 open-ended questions and six non-open-ended questions.

The survey was then approved by EWU’s institutional research board and distributed in April 2021.

The survey deadline was extended twice due to poor response rate from deputies and staff. The survey was officially concluded on May 31, 2021.

Of the 287 employees of the sheriff’s office at the time, 42 responded.

The audit committee acknowledged it was impossible to make meaningful findings about the culture of the sheriff’s office with such a low response rate, according to the final report which was issued in October 2021.

The low response rate can function as a data point however, the audit committee wrote. Of those who did respond, they described essentially two sheriff’s offices, one that was well run and another that left employees feeling marginalized and devalued.

The survey responses also were broken down into themes, including poor communication and a lack of agreement as to what diversity is and its importance.

Ultimately, the committee offered limited recommendations to the sheriff’s office. The main recommendation was that another culture audit take place within the next year by an entity that has more authority to elicit response from employees. Creating a diversity strategic plan with actionable items was another of the limited recommendations.

Problems with the process

All sides acknowledged delays in completing the audit due to COVID-19. Both Robinson and Clarke also noted the audit committee was made up of volunteers, which slowed the process as well.

However, Robinson said other delays and issues were “very avoidable,” especially the low response rate.

Knezovich told the audit committee he heard from his staff that the survey was too long and the questions too “wordy.” He also was told that employees didn’t trust the NAACP, and that employees were angry about comments made by NAACP members that were “antagonistic to their work,” according to the final report.

The audit committee said nearly 54% of staff didn’t open the survey, making it difficult for them to attribute the low response rate to the survey’s structure.

The sheriff tasked his undersheriffs to explain the audit and survey at rollcalls multiple times, but avoided personal involvement to avoid accusations he was trying to “taint” results, he said.

Clarke said she encouraged Knezovich to appeal to his deputies, and then the audit committee re-sent the survey. But there was little uptick in response.

When the co-chairs of the audit committee realized the survey wasn’t going to get the type of response it needed, they decided to end the audit process, Clarke said.

“You can only go back to ask someone to do something so many times,” she said. “We were only able to get so many people because it wasn’t championed.”

Robinson said the onus was on the sheriff to get his employees to respond.

“Well wait a minute, you’re the sheriff and this is your organization and you’re saying you don’t have any leverage as far as saying ‘Hey this is a safe, okay thing to do, no matter what you think and this has value and meaning and importance,’ ” Robinson said. “The sheriff really could have leveraged his influence to the maximum.”

Knezovich said he was also frustrated with the response rate but that it was the NAACP and EWU’s responsibility to get people to respond.

“We could have overcome this if the NAACP and more importantly the researcher from Eastern made the effort to come in and talk to our people,” Knezovich said.

A soured relationship

The death of George Floyd while in the custody of Minneapolis police in May 2020 sparked protests and began a national reckoning on race and policing practices.

In the aftermath were a slew of legislative reforms in many states, including Washington.

The onslaught of criticism and reforms is something the sheriff’s office has continued to push back on.

The sheriff’s office disengaged from the audit process about the same time it started pushing back against other reforms, Robinson said.

“Instead of open-ended ongoing, consistent, and humanizing conversations … what power says is ‘I have the ability and will act on my ability to punitively call you out time and time again,’ ” Robinson said. “Instead of reaching out to you and saying, ‘Hey, from a restorative humanizing perspective, is there a problem? What can we do to help? Can we do better?’ ”

Knezovich said his relationship with Robinson is damaged after his public criticism of law enforcement and Robinson’s lack of action on helping recruit people of color to the department and working on other programs in which he offered help. Robinson said the NAACP, an all-volunteer organization, makes things move a bit slower. But he said he still intends to help the sheriff’s office with those issues.

Another survey to come

While the response rate was disappointing, Clarke said she is proud of the job her team did.

“We did a phenomenal job,” Clarke said.

Knezovich said he was extremely disappointed in the six-page final report of the culture audit and called EWU’s team unprofessional. He plans to have another group conduct an audit this fall.

“We did this out of kindness for our community,” Clarke said of taking on the audit. “This was a favor.”

While the first audit didn’t achieve results, Robinson remains positive that this is just the beginning of the process.

“This audit was hopefully the beginning of a process to start getting to the truth of that (culture) and why that’s there and implement meaningful changes by people that mean to have the change,” Robinson said.

Read the full final audit report here: