Vestal: Knezovich needs help in Olympia

Shawn Vestal

January 16, 2013 - Updated: 8:14 a.m.

What do you have to do to stay fired as a cop in this state?

Kick a handcuffed suspect while he’s down? Force a mentally ill suspect to strip and do jumping jacks? Lie to your boss? Lie to your boss more than once? Drive drunk and get into an accident and then drive away? Mishandle evidence? Destroy private property in an overzealous, illegal search for contraband?

No, no, no, no, no, no and no. If you do those things and happen to find yourself fired, just hold on – you’ve got a decent shot at getting your job back, along with a big check and an apology. The odds are so heavily stacked against the possibility of real discipline against a cop that a deputy fired a few years back for flashing a barista actually took a stab at getting his job back. The only surprise is that he didn’t win.

Imagine being that guy and, instead of slinking away in disgrace, coming to the conclusion that your firing was unjust and lawyering up.

“There used to be very clear-cut rules: You don’t lie,” Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said. “Whatever you do, you don’t lie. That’s changed. Lying seems to be OK now.”

Knezovich finds this unacceptable. Everywhere he goes, the people he talks to find it unacceptable.

Everywhere, that is, but Olympia.

Knezovich has proposed legislation that would weaken an arbitrator’s authority in overturning disciplinary actions against law enforcement officers. Every sheriff in the state has signed on in support. Under his proposal, if an arbitrator finds that an officer committed a major crime or lied on the job, that arbitrator cannot undo the discipline imposed by the cop’s boss.

Not so controversial, you’d think. Except that Knezovich has been talking this up for months, and not a single lawmaker has yet agreed to sponsor the bill. Not one.

Knezovich is being circumspect about the reasons, but you don’t have to guess: Unions hate it, and lawmakers who are beholden to – or afraid of – them are hemming and hawing. The sheriff says some lawmakers have been good at getting back to him, but he’s still “hoping to find a sponsor for the legislation in both the House and the Senate.”

Knezovich, a former union president, said he understands the value of arbitration generally. Workers need protection from capricious bosses, from unfounded discipline. He has tried to narrow his proposal to prevent unintended consequences; in fact, he limited the scope of the crimes covered by the proposal to major ones, so drunken drivers and property destroyers and other minor miscreants will still have their rights to work as a police officer secured.

Arbitrators could still overturn a firing, but not if they agree that the officer engaged in an illegal act or lied. In those cases, the firings would stand.

“You have to have integrity in law enforcement,” Knezovich said.

We have too many unfortunate exceptions to this rule. Cities and counties now routinely rehire cops who should stay fired, simply because they recognize the potential futility and liability involved with challenging the case in arbitration.

The problem is not a local one; Google “officer rehired arbitration” and see what you get. On this question, the pendulum has swung far past protecting workers’ rights and begun damaging the public right to trustworthy cops.

Knezovich has tried to fire a handful of deputies, only to be overturned by arbitrators who found that he was right on the facts but too tough in his discipline. In one case, the firing of a deputy who forced a mentally ill inmate on suicide watch to strip and do jumping jacks – actions the arbitrator termed “reprehensible misconduct” – was overturned, because the deputy had a history of being a jailhouse joker and because no one intervened to stop him.

In another case, Knezovich fired a deputy who piled up a list of substantiated offenses in three separate incidents, including blunders such as mishandling evidence and messing up reports, as well as retaliating inappropriately against a driver by piling on citations and cutting a suspect’s car seat with a knife, an action the arbitrator found to be “criminal conduct.”

Part of the union’s argument on behalf of the deputy was this: “There have been other situations where more serious officer misconduct did not lead to discharge. In one case, two officers engaged in a prank car pursuit at excessive speed through downtown Spokane in police vehicles (one marked and one unmarked) that was not only dangerous but caused $2,000 in damage. The discipline was two or three week suspensions. In the other situation, an officer reported to work intoxicated and refused colleagues’ advice to go home. Instead, while in uniform, he met with a civilian for work purposes. … His discipline was a one-week suspension.”

This argument – since not every bad cop has been fired, no bad cop can be fired – won the day. The arbitrator ruled that the deputy was guilty, but not so guilty that it mattered much. Among the mitigating factors: The deputy’s crime did not put anyone’s physical safety at risk, and it was done out of public view.

Astonishing.

Is this unfixable? Someone needs to carry Knezovich’s bill forward, and lawmakers ought to vote on it, if only so those who oppose it – or who lack the will to support it – will be forced onto the record.

Meanwhile, he said, “I’m still looking for a sponsor.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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