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Shooting From the Lip 

When a sheriff’s spokesman misspeaks, what are the consequences?

click to enlarge Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich

“He’s looking at adding zeroes to his check.” The speaker was a Spokane County Sheriff’s spokesman who was talking to reporters last week about the son of an elderly pastor shot and killed by a deputy.

The comment came during what Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich describes as “a frank and blunt discussion” with reporters about coverage of the three officer-involved shootings in the county since Aug. 25. Two of the incidents, including the fatal shooting of 74-year-old pastor and Spokane Valley nursery owner Wayne Scott Creach, involved sheriff’s deputies. The other involved a detective with the Washington State Patrol.

Sgt. Dave Reagan, the sheriff’s spokesman, was discussing frequent quotes in local media from Alan Creach, one of the slain pastor’s sons. Alan, citing contact with investigators, often revealed information about the shooting that official sources from investigating agencies would not. (Under a critical incident protocol, Spokane Police led the investigation into the Creach shooting.)

Reagan was quoted as saying, “I’ve never seen a non-witness be treated so much like an eyewitness. He’s looking at adding zeroes to his check.”

Reagan apologized, calling the statement insensitive. “I wasn’t anticipating it leaving the room, but there is no such thing as off-the-record,” Knezovich says. He had called a meeting with local media last Thursday morning to discuss coverage of the Creach shooting and other incidents. He admits there was no prior discussion of whether the meeting would be off the record.

The sheriff says he is critical of local media for reporting fragmentary or erroneous information, sometimes from anonymous sources.

Those reports strain the relationship between media and law enforcement, he says, and erode community trust in law enforcement.

“Tensions are high. If you want gaffes, there are gaffes on both sides of the coin,” Knezovich says.

It was wrongly stated that he allowed Deputy Brian Hirzel to leave on vacation the day after shooting Creach, Knezovich says. And last week, he was surprised to see media accounts about a second shooting incident near Wandermere saying “deputies had changed their stories” about whether Sean Houlihan had opened fire on them last month.

The deputies did not change their statements. TV and print reporters misread a sentence in a search warrant, Knezovich says.

Jumping to conclusions goes both ways, as the sheriff indicates. Early in the Creach investigation, Reagan issued a press release castigating KREM for staking out Hirzel’s North Idaho home.

The reporter and camera operator were mocked as a “news” team in the release and accused of trespassing and scaring the Hirzel children by aiming cameras in the windows.

When KREM showed video, Reagan issued a corrected release.

“As soon as we found out we were wrong, we [made a correction] and it wasn’t buried on page 96,” Knezovich says.

Reagan declined to comment, saying only, “I represent the sheriff. I think the sheriff can speak to those issues.”

The Creach shooting in particular “is a very tragic incident and there have been a lot of emotions assigned to this,” Knezovich says.

Leaders of other area law enforcement agencies have remained largely silent about the shootings. Knezovich has not.

He does not fault SPD investigators for keeping the Creach family apprised of developments, but obviously isn’t pleased with Alan Creach’s leaks. “There were times I felt I should go down to the Spokesman-Review for my briefings, because they knew things before I did,” he says.

While frustrated with media coverage that quotes unofficial sources, Knezovich says he wants to change the way information is released. That would include more info being released earlier, he adds.

Knezovich says he called Alan Creach to apologize for Reagan’s “more zeros” statement. But he wouldn’t say more than that.

“I understand how hard this is on the Creach family right now, and I am not willing to add to that. Mr. Creach and I have an agreement that we will not play this out in the media.”

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