Ozzie vs. the Media: Knezovich was both a reporter's best source and most irritating critic

click to enlarge Ozzie vs. the Media: Knezovich was both a reporter's best source and most irritating critic
Daniel Walters photo
Ozzie Knezovich at a Republican rally in 2017

With 16 years' worth of tape, by now reporters are used to Spokane Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich’s tics: His ya-gotta-be-shitting-me smirk. His more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger head shake. His now-listen-here finger jabbing across the conference room table. And his lengthy PowerPoint-accompanied speeches dedicated — in whole or in part — to slamming media coverage.

And yet, for our story on the sheriff's legacy, Knezovich sat down with us for a total of four hours, answering every question we asked. 

Knezovich's relationship with the press was often a paradox, if not a contradiction.

In the morning, he may give a press conference thundering against media outlets. 

But in the evening he may give one of those same reporters an interview that could easily sprawl over two hours — sometimes combative, sometimes philosophical, sometimes exhausting, always fascinating and always quotable.

In some ways, despite his rants against the profession, Knezovich was the ultimate media source:
A leader who says what's on his mind, even — or especially — if it's controversial. Who's more than happy to throw down rhetorically against any other civic leader.

He's the sort who would call you back at 8 pm if you were on deadline, from his personal cell phone.

“How long have you had my personal cell phone?” he asks me.

Of course, it's worth noting that during a heated email exchange in 2017, about whether he dropped the
Inlander from his press release contact lists due to critical coverage, he demanded that Inlander reporters “scrub my personal email and cell from your contact list.”

But a few months later, as I was digging into domestic violence allegations against community leader Phil Tyler — a former corrections officer Knezovich had passionately supported — the sheriff started digging, too.

It's always been a rollercoaster.

But Knezovich is also upfront that his approach with many reporters has changed.

“I stopped talking to them,” Knezovich says of some reporters. “There are reporters out there, I will not even entertain an interview. There are outlets that I would rather eat glass than do an interview with."
click to enlarge Ozzie vs. the Media: Knezovich was both a reporter's best source and most irritating critic (2)
Daniel Walters photo
Fists of Ozzie

It's notable, perhaps, that Knezovich was appointed to be Spokane County Sheriff less than a month after the death of Otto Zehm, a mentally disabled janitor who'd been beaten by Spokane Police. As the fallout from the Zehm scandal dragged on for years — and exposed multiple false statements by members of the city's police force, Knezovich's reputation for going after his own misbehaving county deputies made him some fans, even among members of the press.

"He really did improve the reputation of the law enforcement with the citizens of Spokane County as a whole," says Jeff Humphrey, a former KXLY reporter whose son now works as a deputy for the sheriff. "He'll have my respect for the rest of our days."

Before Knezovich became sheriff, however, the two did have some significant agreements.

"We clashed initially because he did not like the news media betraying the SWAT tactics," Humphrey says.

Eventually, he says, they found a way to work together, and Humphrey heaped on the praise. 

"I would tell him, 'The only person who could beat you, Ozzie, is John Wayne,'" Humphrey says.

At the same time, when Knezovich would inexorably get into fights with his online critics, Humphrey would advise him to choose his battles.

"I would beg him, 'Don’t pick a fight with this guy. You’re tilting at windmills. You don’t have to do this,’” Humphrey says. "I spent a lot of time talking him off a cliff. 'You’re empowering these people. They’re getting off on it'.”

Sometimes, however, the critics weren't just online trolls. It was the media. And Knezovich made his frustration known. During the fallout from a deputy shooting Wayne Scott Creach, Knezovich called a press conference, whipped out a big binder crammed with news articles, and plopped it on the table.

“There are 89 news stories in here” about Creach, he said.

What about all the times that his department hasn’t used force? he argued. Where was the media then?

And yet, Knezovich regrets not engaging with the press more back then.

"All this nonsense about bunkering in and not talking to the media is bad," Knezovich says. "I had major battles internally with the SPD, that we will go out and tell people what we know."

A lot of reporters got a sense for the Knezovich paradox. 

"At the same time he was antagonistic to us, he would give us tips," says former Inlander law enforcement beat reporter Mitch Ryals. "He recognizes a hard-working person and values that."

Still, Ryals recalls reporting on the Ryan Holyk case, where one of Knezovich's deputies was accused of hitting and killing a 15-year-old kid with his patrol car. For months and months, the sheriff had defended the deputy. When a significant amount of DNA was found on the bumper, he explained it as an accidental transfer from first responders. 

But then Knezovich's own expert found the literal markings of Holyk's hatband on the bumper. On one hand, Ryals notes that the sheriff did call a press conference to tell him about the evidence. He didn't try to cover it up.

Yet the sheriff insisted that he still, in his heart of hearts, didn't truly believe that his deputy hit Holyk. Ryals was flabbergasted.

"Dude, are you f—-ing serious?,"  Ryals recalls thinking. "The hatband is on the bumper."

Ozzie vs. the Media: Knezovich was both a reporter's best source and most irritating critic (5)
Daniel Walters photo
Antifa groups do exist, but Knezovich's claims that they were secretly in "command and control" of a 2020 riot in Spokane have never been proven.

As Knezovich became more critical of the left in the Trump years, however, his animosity toward the national media became more explicit. He'd stand up during presentations and suggest that the National Media was an extremist threat on par with "White Nationalists," "Black Nationalists," "Lone Wolf Actors" and "GANGS."

In particular, he'd blame media outlets for "the lie that was Ferguson" — the claim, debunked by the Department of Justice, that 18-year-old Black man Michael Brown had his hands up when he was shot by Ferguson, Missouri, police. But media outlets did cover that finding. They also covered the DOJ finding that Knezovich was more dismissive of, which revealed just how discriminatory and corrupt the Ferguson Police Department was.

Then came 2020, when the Sheriff confidently, on multiple occasions, declared that “Antifa" or "Antifa socialists” had been behind the May 31, 2020 rioting, looting and vandalism downtown.

Knezovich didn’t see the looting and destruction that year as mere organic manifestations of rage or opportunism. He was convinced there was an elaborate behind-the-scenes plot.

“We are going to find out who did this and who organized this,” he vowed at one press conference. “We want to know who's funding these riots.”

But the sources he publicly revealed on this issue didn't always inspire confidence: When the sheriff called out Huffington Post reporter Christopher Mathias for his coverage, Knezovich quoted a zero-follower no-profile-picture troll on Twitter named "Rev Dilbert Swan" who spelled "whiny" wrong, as evidence that Mathias had "Antifa sympathies."

And as I and other reporters pushed back on the sheriff's assumptions, knowing that the Internet was rife with false rumors about Antifa, the sheriff was annoyed. He claimed that, if he had been accusing a right-leaning group, "I don't think you'd be questioning anything I have said."

I heartily disagreed. Even when reporting on former Rep. Matt Shea, I had sometimes raised skepticism of the Sheriff's claims. But the difference was that Knezovich was largely proven right about Shea: The representative's ties to a wildlife refuge standoff in Oregon got Shea kicked out of the GOP caucus.

But with Antifa, the told-ya-so moment never arrived. There were some people wearing Antifa logos at the protests in Spokane, but Knezovich — despite saying he has information from informants that he can’t share — hasn't tied anyone with Antifa to any explicit crimes. If any group was secretly funding the riots, Knezovich never figured it out.

And yet, as with the Holyk case, the sheriff sticks to his guns. Antifa may not have been the ones that broke the glass, but they were behind it, he says.

"If you want to know who is command and control of that, it was Antifa," he said in our interviews. "If you want to know who they were using: Young kids. It was the socialist end of the community that spawned that."

And just today, the sheriff followed up with a text.

"Not only is Antifa here," he texts, "They are here at levels and in positions, you'll never believe, let alone have imagined... Merry Christmas, Daniel."

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Twitter screenshot
Washington state commerce department director Lisa Brown was among those who mocked the "Washinton state" typo in a Spokane Sheriff's Times Square ad.

But the final straw for the Sheriff and the media, according to the Sheriff, wasn't anything about Creach or Holyk or Black Lives Matter or Antifa. It was about a typo. And not even one of ours.

"NOW HIRING 40 LATERAL OFFICERS" the ad in Times Square in New York City read. "Spokane County Sheriff. Washinton State."

The jokes came fast.

“This is @SheriffOzzie, addicted to attention, showing how large his... ego is,” Washington Department of Commerce director Lisa Brown wrote on Twitter, accusing Knezovich of trying to recruit unvaccinated officers. "Embarrassing typo not good for #Spokane."

When I pushed the Sheriff to agree that an ad, placed in the most famous advertising venue in the world, that misspells the name of our own state twice is, well, objectively funny, Knezovich remains stone-faced.

“Yeah, if that would have been the crux of it,” Knezovich says.

But to him the fact that a lot of media attention focused on the spelling error — made by the advertising company in New York, he claims — was insulting.

"My God. I was amazed. I'm like — let me get this straight. That's the story?! I'm done with you," Knezovich says. "You went that damn stupid? ... The hell's wrong with you people?”

It fits into his larger lamentation about the media.

"The truth is, I no longer believe in you," Knezovich says. "I used to believe in you."

And yet. He talked to us for four hours for one story.

Over the years, my one-on-one interviews with Knezovich could often turn into sprawling debates. We'd fight back and forth about crime stats. We'd argue about the roots of racial disparities. We'd clash about vaccine research — and then he'd message me a scientific paper he felt supported his claims.

At times, I'd give Knezovich the ol' we-are-not-so-different-you-and-I speech.

Because for all the ways that we drove each other crazy, I could see my own strengths and weaknesses — the stubbornness, the defiance, the independence, the thirst for the spotlight, the desire to hear ourselves talk, the need to be right more than popular, the belief in Truth with a Capital T, the compulsion to argue with internet trolls, even, (lamentably, increasingly) the hairline — reflected in the sheriff.

In our second to last interview, I make an accusation: "You're a person who actually, at your core, loves talking to the press."

"I do," the sheriff responds. 

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Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters was a staff reporter for the Inlander from 2009 to 2023. He reported on a wide swath of topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.His work investigated deep flaws in the Washington...