Thursday, February 7, 2013

Lawmakers introduce Knezovich-backed bill to change rules for firing police officers

Posted By on Thu, Feb 7, 2013 at 5:25 PM

Following a push from Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich to change protocols for firing law enforcement officers, state lawmakers have introduced bills to change arbitration rules surrounding officers terminated over "illegal or dishonest" misconduct. 

Local Republican Sens. Michael Baumgartner and Mike Padden introduced Senate Bill 5668 to tighten arbitration rules, mandating a termination for misconduct must stand if arbitrators agree with the officer's culpability. The bill underwent its first reading today.

State Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, plans to introduce a companion bill in the House on Friday, saying he has worked with regional police and union officials to build support on the issue.

"We want this to be a tool for sheriffs and police chiefs," Parker says. 

The bill adds a section on discharging peace officers that states:

"If an employer removes or discharges a person who holds an office, place, position, or employments under this chapter for committing an illegal act or an act of dishonesty or untruthfulness, and an arbitrator finds that the employer established that the person engaged in the act or acts by clear and convincing evidence, the employer is deemed to have had just cause for the removal or discharge, and the arbitrator may not overturn the removal or discharge."

In arguing for arbitration changes, Knezovich has cited two recent termination cases in which the department fired officers for misconduct. In both those cases, a state arbitrator agreed the officers had committed illegal acts, but still ordered them hired back to the department.

The sheriff argues those kinds of arbitration decisions undermine public confidence in the department. He asked lawmakers in November to change state law to force arbitrators to either uphold the termination or overturn the finding of wrongdoing. 

"We can't have dishonest police officers," he says.

Knezovich wrote at least two letters to lawmakers in recent months lobbying for the rule change. His most recent letter included supporting signatures from the sheriffs in all 39 Washington counties.

"I feel it's something that's needed," he says, adding, "There's a reason that all 39 county sheriffs have signed on."

Parker says he has collaborated with law enforcement leaders, city and county officials, union representatives and other stakeholders on the wording of the bill. He says both Republicans and Democrats have signed on as sponsors. 

"We tried to make it very narrow," he says of the rule change. "This is aimed at those very few police officers that make a few bad decisions. ... This legislation would be a failure if it ever caught up a good officer."

Knezovich acknowledges some opposition to the idea, but he believes the proposal is slowly gaining support. He thanked local lawmakers for "stepping up" to introduce bills on the issue.

"There's some hesitancy," he says, "but I'm optimistic."

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Jacob Jones

Staff writer Jacob Jones covers criminal justice, natural resources, military issues and organized labor for the Inlander.