Calling the homeless encampment on state property in East Central Spokane an “ongoing protest” threatening public safety, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich asserted his authority to remove the camp Friday and arrest those within it.
“It’s not my responsibility to figure out how to fix your mess,” Knezovich, who wrote a letter to the Washington Department of Transportation on Thursday announcing his intentions to break up Camp Hope by mid-October, said in an hourlong news conference Friday, addressing local and state agencies. “It is my responsibility to clean it up.”
City officials and state agencies, including the Washington departments of Commerce and Transportation, have been in discussions to resolve a dispute about the property where at least 600 people are living in tents, campers and other shelters with an on-site nonprofit providing housing and other services. Knezovich on Friday took credit for recent improvements in the negotiations, saying he contacted the Department of Transportation on Tuesday, the same day that department issued a stern rebuke to the city about its response to the encampment.
“Two days later, they’re now in ‘productive conversations,’ ” Knezovich said. “Well, I’m glad I got involved.”
The sheriff spoke to an assembled group of reporters and local politicians that included Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns, Spokane City Councilmembers Michael Cathcart and Jonathan Bingle, as well as Spokane County Undersheriff John Nowels, who is seeking election to Knezovich’s office in November.
It’s unclear if Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward supports the sheriff making the decision to disperse the camp or having the sheriff’s office – not the city’s own police force – take the lead.
City spokesman Brian Coddington said the city wants to establish a resolution that includes moving camp residents out of the field along Interstate 90 into “safe, healthy and humane” indoor spaces before winter.
When asked if Woodward supports Knezovich clearing out the camp by mid-October, Coddington said, “She’s listening to different partners and different stakeholders looking for a way to partner to achieve that goal.”
Knezovich cited a state attorney general’s opinion from 1961 that he said asserted the office’s authority to investigate felony cases inside city limits, while also saying the Spokane Police Department had its “hands slightly tied” by local policymakers and that he’d contacted Mayor Nadine Woodward in July to offer assistance to clear out the camp.
But that it’s not entirely clear that the 1961 opinion applies to Spokane. The opinion states that a sheriff has the authority to investigate felonies “within cities of the third class and towns of the fourth class in his county.” Spokane is a first-class city by virtue of its size and governance structure, one of six in the state. Knezovich said anyone arrested would be charged with “breach of peace,” which encompasses several misdemeanor offenses under state law – not felonies.
“They have disturbed the peace of this entire county,” Knezovich said, adding later that he believed he had authority to arrest those within and would be meeting later this month with “multiple agencies” to determine a plan for clearing the camp.
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said in an interview Friday that he had not spoken to Knezovich before his announcement Thursday that he’d be working to clear the camp, instead saying that he’d facilitated a conversation between Knezovich and Woodward. Meidl said Knezovich did have the authority to act, and that the location was “a hotbed of criminal activity.”
“Right now, all I know is his stated intent to get rid of that camp by mid-October,” Meidl said, confirming that he would be meeting with Knezovich’s office next week to discuss future plans regarding the camp.
Knezovich, whose 16-year tenure as sheriff will end at the end of the year, declined to say what such a procedure would look like, citing social media threats made against his officers following his announcement the camp would be cleared.
Nowels’ opponent for sheriff in the November election, Wade Nelson, said he agreed that Knezovich had jurisdiction to disperse Camp Hope, but questioned the sheriff’s motivation. He said several large camps of homeless people are within Knezovich’s jurisdiction, including one of almost 100 people near Sprague Avenue and University Road in Spokane Valley.
“He has not even addressed his own issues,” Nelson said.
He added that Knezovich is oversimplifying a complex issue and potentially making things worse by forcing problems to many other parts of the county.
“He’s not going to fix it, he’s going to disperse it,” Nelson said.
Nowels said neighbors surrounding Camp Hope are frustrated by the camp – a feeling they expressed to Nowels when the undersheriff campaigned there.
“I completely understand and support Ozzie wanting to deal with the frustration the citizens are expressing,” he said. “It does have to be done sooner rather than later.”
Nowels said some people equate clearing out the camp to deputies using physical force, but he said they have no interest in that.
“It’s all in the language, right? And interpretation,” Nowels said. “And sometimes I think that’s some of the problem that Ozzie runs into is it’s his way of expressing it.”
Instead, Nowels said the plan is to offer resources to camp residents and “address this in the most humane way possible.” He said that might take days.
He said Knezovich’s letter was a call to action for all entities involved at Camp Hope to work together toward solutions.
“I worry that it’s being interpreted as, ‘I’m just going to come in and clean up the mess,’ when really the message is, ‘Something has to be done and if no one else will help me and step up, then we’ll make it happen,’ ” Nowels said.
Bingle, whose council district includes Camp Hope, said he didn’t care whether Spokane police, the sheriff’s office or Washington State Patrol cleared the camp.
“The people I represent there are beyond tired of the crime that they are experiencing, of the real oppression that has come into that area, really without any consequences,” he said.
The sheriff stood by his pledge to provide bus tickets back home for those in the camp once it’s cleared.
Kerns said county commissioners had provided $25,000 for a program called Homeward Bound, operated by the Volunteers of America, which provides money to cover transportation costs for those experiencing homelessness who want to travel to reconnect with family and friends. Kerns said the county would continue to support that program with money in the future, if it’s requested.
Knezovich said the basis for clearing the camp would be provided by a warrant of abatement being drafted by the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office. That process, outlined in state law, is different than the chronic nuisance property procedure written into city law. Knezovich said it would take 20 days to draft that warrant.
He laid blame on the state agencies and city policymakers for failing to act when tents first started being pitched on the property last winter. He also said even though he believed he had authority back then to act, he waited because he believed city and state officials would move to evict the residents.
“I thought that they would resolve it,” Knezovich said.
He also said he has never visited the camp prior to issuing his pledge to clear it, citing a long career in law enforcement.
“I don’t need to go to Camp Hope to know what squalor looks like,” Knezovich said.
Emma Epperly and Jonathan Brunt contributed to this report.
Kip Hill can be reached at (509) 459-5429 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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