Thursday, January 16, 2014

First debate for Spokane sheriff's race hits divisive issues

Posted By on Thu, Jan 16, 2014 at 11:20 AM

click to enlarge Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, left, and Spokane Police Det. Douglas Orr in first debate for sheriff's race. - JACOB JONES
Jacob Jones
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, left, and Spokane Police Det. Douglas Orr in first debate for sheriff's race.

Less-than-subtle jabs, political posturing and a quick JFK impression made for what seemed like a politely resentful first debate between two-term Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and challenger Douglas Orr, a detective with the Spokane Police Department. Responding to more than two dozen questions Wednesday night, they both addressed staffing cuts, budget challenges and new alternative justice proposals with side remarks on legalized marijuana, jail overcrowding, drones and body cameras.

Both Knezovich and Orr are running as Republicans. They both voice support for Smart Justice-style reforms of the county's criminal justice system, which focus on offender rehabilitation and services instead of hard prison or jail sentences. Both pledged to reshape local law enforcement through improved partnerships and technology.

But Knezovich suggests Orr does not have enough experience or a proper understanding of the challenges facing the Sheriff's Office. He challenged or corrected Orr on several points, arguing his opponent had oversimplified issues or repeated false information. He also accused Orr of opposing important projects or reform ideas.

"If you want to have leadership and you want to move things forward, you can't have 'no,'" Knezovich says. "That's all my opponent has said tonight. … My opponent has never led anything."

Orr, who has served with the SPD since 1996 and in law enforcement since 1987, has in turn accused Knezovich of heavy handed discipline that has alienated employees and risks hundreds of thousands of dollars in settlement costs. He says Spokane County needs a change.

"We know the pathway to reform," Orr says. "It doesn't make sense to re-elect the same person who represents what we've been doing in the past. We need a smarter, more genuine leader to move forward."

Orr says the core of leadership is influence, arguing he has the personal relationships and expertise to drive reform through collaboration instead of contention. He repeatedly attacked Knezovich for supporting tax increases, reacting slowly on reform efforts and politicizing his office.

Several times Orr brought up rumored problems with Sheriff's employee morale or personnel disputes, not explicitly blaming Knezovich, but floating the accusation, saying: "I don't know this for a fact, but …"

The detective, who holds a master's degree and PhD, says he plans to introduce new research-based programs to cut crime and costs. He praised a Daytona Beach, Florida, program that developed "burglary profiles" to reduce property crimes as well as other emerging strategies.

"If you elect me sheriff, other people will be writing about us," he says. "Other agencies will want to be us."

When Orr raised the prospect of improved surveillance technology and police drones, he emphasized the importance of establishing appropriate laws to protect personal privacy. Knezovich seized the moment to score easy applause on the point.

"I believe we have legislation on that — it's called the Constitution," Knezovich quipped.

The sheriff then went on to make essentially the same point as Orr, saying drones could be helpful in some scenarios, such as search and rescue, but should be approached carefully to protect privacy.

Knezovich listed a range of statistics on cost-saving measures he has introduced during his administration. He says the department now uses priority-based staffing and budgeting to make sure core services have the support and funding they need, while changes in jail operations and other projects have reduced annual spending.

He also says the unincorporated county has enjoyed a 60 percent decrease in violent crime along with a 2 percent drop in property crimes. He pinpointed property crimes as the department's most challenging priority.

Both men expressed concerns about the legalization of medical marijuana and its potential impact on law enforcement. Knezovich says he considers the issue an "unfunded mandate" that will force deputies to monitor new growing, selling and possession laws. Orr says he believes the drug will have a negative effect on the border county, but may prove a "great experiment" on drug regulation.

When asked if they would take a pay cut, Knezovich outlined the extensive responsibilities of the office and noted he already receives a salary of $115,000, which is lower than the undersheriff's salary of $120,000. Orr says public service should not be about making money, offering, "Of course, I'd take the pay cut."

Body cameras found strong support with both Knezovich and Orr. The sheriff says he believes the cameras would save the county millions in potential settlement costs and his department has already started talks with a vendor. Orr noted some concerns about privacy issues and making the video footage public, but pledged to implement body cams within a year of taking office.

One of the strangest moments may have been when Orr emphasized the importance of visionary leadership by quoting John F. Kennedy's moon-landing prediction in an impression of the president's heavy New England accent: "We're going to go to the moon in 10 years," Orr imitated quickly before returning to his topic.

"You're going to see two distinct, completely different visions for the Spokane County Sheriff's Office," Orr says. "One vision will be reactive. The other proactive."

Both men embraced the recent recommendations from the Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission, calling for a more holistic and offender-based approach to justice and rehabilitation. Additional debates are expected to be held in the coming months.

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Jacob Jones

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