Advocacy groups call for 'cultural audit' of Spokane County Sheriff's Office after firing of deputy for alleged racist threat and sexual harassment

click to enlarge Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich

Last month, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich fired one of the department's longtime deputies, Sgt. Jeffrey Thurman, for alleged sexual harassment, use of racial slurs and talking about killing black people. Now, a large coalition of regional community advocacy groups is calling for a "cultural audit" of the law enforcement agency.

In a joint statement published on July 5, a slew of local and statewide advocacy organizations and organizers — including the Spokane NAACP, Center for Justice, the ACLU of Washington and the Tenants Union of Washington State — both commended Knezovich's decision to fire Thurman but also called for a independent "cultural audit" of the Spokane County Sheriff's Office.

"There exists in many aspects of our local, state, county governments and private institutions an underpinning of racial bias and outright bigotry," the statement reads. "While we do not demonize and ostracize people like Mr. Thurman, we absolutely call upon the organizations within which they serve, especially organizations whose missions it is to hold people accountable and to dispense justice, to take a serious, hard, transparent,  and community-accountable cultural inventory in order to evaluate its internal perspectives."

Specifically, the statement calls for the development of an "equity strategic plan" for the agency and for an "outside source" to conduct a "cultural audit" of the department that examines "stops, arrests and use of force" data broken down by race, gender and geographic area. Additionally, the coalition requests that both processes be completed by the end of 2019.

"This is a not a new issue," says Spokane NAACP President Kurtis Robinson of racism and bias in local law enforcement agencies. "The people, the impacted populations, we have all experienced this undertone, this undercurrent being here for a ridiculous period of time and have been talking about it over and over again."

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich did not respond the Inlander's request for comment. But Robinson says that he had a "very candid conversation" with the sheriff on July 7 by phone and that they plan to meet on July 12 to discuss the coalition's demands and what the "solutions are going to be."

Last month, Knezovich fired Sgt. Thurman after an internal investigation allegedly found that he threatened to kill black people during a phone call with another deputy in 2016, reportedly saying: "You ready to kill some [N-word] tonight or what?"

After alerted to the incident, Thurman's supervisors didn't call for an internal investigation, Knezovich said at a June 13 press conference. Only after
Kevin Richey, president of the deputies union, heard about the incident — and subsequently informed Knezovich — did a formal inquiry begin. This investigation also found that Thurman sexually harassed a female deputy during an out-of-town training.

"Thurman was fired for conduct unbecoming a deputy: For sexual harassment, for use of a racial slur," Knezovich said at the June 13 press conference. "You never use the words 'let's go out and kill anybody.' That's why he was terminated."

In response to his firing, Thurman filed a $12.5 million claim for damages with Spokane County, claiming that he never did the things that the Knezovich claimed that he did and arguing that the sheriff defamed him in front of the press.

Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Feb. 13
  • or

About The Author

Josh Kelety

As a staff writer, Josh covers criminal justice issues and Spokane County government. Previously, he worked as a reporter for Seattle Weekly. Josh grew up in Port Townsend and graduated from the University of Washington. Message him through Signal @ (360) 301-3490.