A new man will take the reins of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office for the first time in 16 years come January.
Undersheriff John Nowels and longtime sheriff’s office employee Wade Nelson, both Republicans, are vying for the top position. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who was appointed in 2006, chose not to seek a fifth term.
Nelson, 50, worked 21 years at the sheriff’s office in numerous roles, including as a patrolman, detective and instructor. He took a one-year leave of absence from the sheriff’s office before officially leaving the agency in June.
He said earlier this year he took the leave of absence because he was frustrated with the department’s administration and the “ethical differences” between Nelson and the administration.
Nelson said he is running for sheriff to raise deputies’ morale – in part by hiring more of them – lower crime and regain trust from the public through transparency.
“Our staffing levels are the root of every problem that we have,” Nelson said.
Nowels has worked 24 years at the sheriff’s office, starting out as a patrolman, then working as a detective, chief criminal deputy and serving as the undersheriff the last three years.
“I have the experience proven over the last 25 years and have held every rank in the sheriff’s office and have worked and led in every division, to include the $60 million budget,” Nowels said at a candidate debate hosted by The Spokesman-Review on Oct. 6.
He told The Spokesman-Review he is the most qualified person to provide public safety in the county.
“I think I have the best ideas on how to help take us forward and I have the experience to make it happen,” Nowels said.
Filling deputy positions
Nowels said the sheriff’s office has almost filled its 247 authorized commissioned officers, thanks in part to a record hiring year.
Meanwhile, Nelson said a lack of deputies has caused poorer service to residents and low morale among deputies.
Nowels said the department hired almost 40 officers this year, the most in its history, and more are in the pipeline.
“We’re going to really outpace it,” Nowels said.
While roughly 237 officers are on the department’s payroll, 30 or more of the 237 are in training and will be on the street by the spring, he said.
Nelson said the sheriff’s office should have never gotten below 240 deputies, which he said is the number the department had in 2006. The county grew substantially since then and deputies need to work overtime to fill the staffing gaps, which has led to low morale, Nelson said.
“I get this year, an election year, all of a sudden we get a lot more bodies by the (county) commissioners,” Nelson said.
He said the sheriff’s office should have at least 320 deputies to cover the increased call loads, and that number could have been nearly reached if Nowels and the department’s administration incrementally added deputies over the years.
“We really need to ramp this up,” Nelson said.
Nowels said the sheriff’s office has added deputies the last several years.
“It’s just in places that he is unaware of,” said Nowels, referencing Nelson. “He seems to not understand what happens outside of his purview.”
Nowels said he plans to request another 25 deputy positions. He said the 25 positions would largely be directed to intelligence operations and investigations, like property crimes.
He said about 1,200 to 1,500 cases each year go unassigned. Most of them are low-level property crimes or other crimes that are unlikely to be solved.
“We want to be able to say that we’re assigning everything that has any kind of level of solvability,” Nowels said. “We want to be able to assign it, get it to a detective and give the victims the best service possible. A lot of these 25 bodies are trying to address that gap.”
Drug possession consequences
Last year, the Washington Supreme Court ruled the state’s felony drug possession law was unconstitutional and invalidated past felony sentences for simple drug possession.
In response to that decision in the State v. Blake case, Washington lawmakers made drug possession a misdemeanor but required offenders to be offered treatment services on their first and second offense. Criminal charges could be filed on their third drug possession offense.
Nowels and Nelson both said a misdemeanor for simple possession is a good way to go.
“The first thing we have to have is some accountability,” Nowels said. “The way the current law is written, there is no accountability for someone who is caught in the throes of drug addiction.”
Nowels proposed making simple drug possession a misdemeanor so offenders are not hampered by a felony on their record. He said offenders should then be required to spend three to six months in treatment. If they are repeatedly caught with drugs, perhaps a felony charge should be in order.
Nelson said his law enforcement experience taught him that people addicted to drugs will commit crimes to sustain their habit. He said they need to be held accountable to stop the cycle.
“I think for some people it is going through law enforcement and having to spend time in jail,” Nelson said. “That time in jail, though, needs to be a treatment-style setting.”
Knezovich has been outspoken on several law enforcement and political issues over the years, and both candidates said at a recent debate that they will take a different approach.
Nelson said Knezovich has been a good sheriff, but he has a different personality when it comes to dealing with the public.
“I like to listen more before I speak,” Nelson said.
He said he will be open and honest with residents if elected and will be more “subtle” when addressing people.
Nowels, who Knezovich endorsed as the next sheriff, said Knezovich has represented the wants and needs of county residents, taken a firm stance ensuring communities are safe and held deputies to the highest standards of integrity and transparency. He said he plans to continue those actions if elected.
“He trusts me to do that,” Nowels said of Knezovich. “That’s why he’s endorsed me, because he knows I’m capable of it, and I’ve shown him through my acts and deeds that I will do that.”
Knezovich suspended Nowels four weeks without pay in 2020 after he joked to a member of the Spokane Valley Precinct staff that “ex-wives should be killed.” Nowels said he did “not literally mean” the comment and that it doesn’t reflect “in my heart who I am.” Knezovich later said his undersheriff had taken responsibility for his actions.
Nowels said much has been said about Knezovich’s personal approach.
“I’m my own person and I tend to work with people instead of attacking,” Nowels said.