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Proposed bill would make it easier to fire bad cops

A bill drafted by Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and championed by Representative Kevin Parker would make arbitrators unable to change the discipline handed down by sheriffs and police chiefs when an officer is found to have lied or broken the law. (Photo: AP/file)

Lying and breaking the law should not have to be tolerated from any officer in our state. But Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich says he’s had to retain several employees who’ve done just that.

Knezovich has drafted a proposed bill that is now being championed in the legislature by Representative Kevin Parker of Spokane. It would give Police Chiefs and Sheriffs more discretion over the punishment given to officers and deputies who are dishonest or act criminally on the job.

“The citizens of this state, quite frankly, demand and expect that police officers don’t lie,” says Knezovich. “It’s always been public doctrine.”

But it hasn’t always been an idea enforced by the courts.

In 2009, the Washington State Supreme Court ruled on a case involving a Kitsap County sheriff’s deputy who was fired for lying and other misconduct. The court sided with an arbitrator who said the deputy had to be reinstated because honesty was not an essential function of the job.

With that precedent set, Knezovich says he has run into at least two incidents where he tried to fire an employee but was overruled by an arbitrator. In one case, the sheriff says a corrections officer forced a mentally ill, suicidal inmate to strip in his cell and perform ten jumping jacks.

“Apparently he had a reputation of being a jokester and had done similar things under prior sheriffs. Because no one dealt with him before, apparently, I have to live with him,” says Knezovich.

That corrections officer still works for the department today.

All 39 sheriffs in Washington State have signed on to support the creation of new legislation to address the issue. Representative Parker says he is also speaking with police chiefs and members of law enforcement unions to get their input.

On Wednesday, Parker has a meeting scheduled with the union in Spokane. He says he hopes he addressed any of their possible concerns already in the way the bill has been drafted.

“It’s narrowly written,” says Parker. “I’m hoping that in the end the police unions will see this as a tool to help them do their jobs better.”

Knezovich says the bill is not an attack on due process. He explains that the disciplinary process, grievance process and binding arbitration are still intact. It would only apply if, at the end of it all, the arbitrator finds the sheriff or chief can prove wrongdoing by the employee. He would then be unable to change the discipline handed down.

“If these people […] had been a probationary deputy, they’d have been let go immediately. If they would have had this in their background prior to being hired, we’d never hired them,” Knezovich says, “So, why are we keeping them?”

Parker expects to be ready to introduce the bill in the next week or two. He is not sure where it will start, but says it would likely begin in the House Committee on Public Safety.

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