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This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Lack of response to race survey tells a sorry story about sheriff’s office

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich speaks during a press conference in Spokane Valley last summer.  (Libby Kamrowski/The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich speaks during a press conference in Spokane Valley last summer. (Libby Kamrowski/The Spokesman-Review)

An audit of attitudes about race among deputies in the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office crashed and burned last year, because so few deputies bothered to respond that auditors could not accurately draw conclusions.

From which you can draw some very unfortunate conclusions.

The survey – the result of a partnership announced three years ago between the sheriff and the NAACP – was meant to measure attitudes about race and diversity in the department. It was conducted by a team of Eastern Washington University researchers.

Sixteen percent of Sheriff’s Office employees returned the survey.

That’s 42 individuals, out of 287 employees, including administrative staff and officers.

Among this miserably low number, some didn’t even fill out the whole form. More than half did not even open the survey. All of this, after the deadline was extended twice.

In the end, it was a colossal insult from the department to those who put in a lot of time, energy and effort to try and put some real muscle into the sheriff’s lip service about trying to examine racial dynamics in his department. It was a stark revelation about how unimportant the members of a department with two Black staffers think these issues are.

Tell me again we don’t have a problem with race in our county’s criminal justice system.

The survey results were completed last fall, and were reported this week by the S-R’s Emma Epperly.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich – who has decided to end his long reign by rashly insulting and attacking everyone in sight – blames the NAACP, naturally. His deputies do not trust the NAACP, he said, because some of its members have made critical public statements about the realities of policing and Black Americans.

He does not seem to see his department’s near-wholesale dismissal of the NAACP as a troubling indication. He also blamed the university for not doing more to enlist participation, and complained that some of the survey questions were too “wordy.”

He does not, of course, blame himself.

“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 told The Spokesman-Review.

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

Oh, and also: Knezovich himself doesn’t trust the NAACP, or at least Kurtis Robinson, the NAACP official involved in the project and a steadfast proponent of examining racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

“He can be critical, but it should be critical when it’s deserved,” Knezovich said of Robinson.

The sheriff will determine when criticism of the sheriff is deserved, you see.

It’s almost like the entire process – from the announced intention to address racial issues three years ago to preposterous excuses offered for the project’s failure today – was a theater piece created to illustrate the problem.

There’s been a lot of reasons to welcome the end of the Knezovich era, and his response to this is another: the blunt refusal to consider any criticism, the failure to be accountable, the childish lashing-out at critics. The attitudes on display make it clear that the sheriff’s participation in the project was an insincere charade from the start.

In August 2020, it was revealed – oddly – that the sheriff and the NAACP had made an agreement a year earlier to examine racial disparities in arrest data for the agency. Black people in Spokane were being arrested at a rate five times higher than their proportion of the population.

The agreement came after a deputy was fired for making comments about killing Black people and using racial slurs.

“We are committed to trying to address whatever drivers (of disparities) it may be, and I think it’s important we are willing to have that courageous conversation from all angles,” the sheriff said at the time.

The courage evaporated. Beyond the cultural survey, the agreement called for the department to adopt a racial equity strategy and to conduct a review of stops, arrests, and uses of force by race.

Instead, the whole thing stumbled to its knees right out of the gate.

Some delays in the cultural survey were caused by the pandemic and the researchers themselves. Others seemed to come from the department right from the start – it took EWU researchers repeated efforts to extract basic information to begin even framing the questionnaire.

Then came the debacle with response rates, and the repeated, fruitless extension of the deadline. Both the head of the EWU research team – Shari Clarke, vice president for diversity at the university – and Robinson faulted the sheriff for failing to emphasize the importance of the survey to his staff and encouraging better participation.

The survey was a bust, in terms of research. But it was not without informative substance. It shines a bright, clear light on the department and its leadership. The audit team recommends that the county not let this be the end of it, and that another, more vigorous effort to address these questions be undertaken soon.

As the report notes, “the extremely low response rate to the survey, and some of the reasons for it which were suggested, served not only to delay the process unnecessarily but also act as indications of the culture within the SCSO… We recommend that a body with more investigative authority conduct a similar survey within the next year.”

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