Spokane County Sheriff complains about a new law requiring independent investigations of officer-involved shootings

Supporters of the reform say: “It’s not harebrained, it’s what law enforcement itself views as best practice”

click to enlarge Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich railed against a new state law mandating independent investigations into police shootings in front of reporters on Monday, calling the measure “draconian.”

Under I-940, a ballot measure reforming state laws governing police shootings that was approved in 2018, the agency involved in an officer-involved shooting can’t participate in the subsequent investigation, leaving it to other regional agencies. This provision of the measure went into effect earlier this year.

“It was politically motivated and politically driven,” Knezovich said on Monday, referring to I-940. “This is one of those laws that was generated out of the fear that has been generated against law enforcement for the last five years.”

Specifically, Knezovich argues that the new law undermines the efficiency of investigations into police shootings and his ability to communicate information about shootings to the public. At the Monday meeting with reporters, he cited a Sunday shooting involving his deputies, stating that, after the scene was secured, his team had to wait for investigators to arrive.

“Whenever you have to wait so long to bring a team together, you have the potential of missing evidence or a missing witness that we didn’t go out and grab like we used to,” he said. “This particular law does nothing and has done nothing except complicate the investigations and has destroyed the regional capability for law enforcement within this region to handle these types of events.”

Knezovich also pushed back on the notion that law enforcement agencies can’t effectively investigate their own conduct.

“The message is not that the involved agency can’t be trusted. The message is that the law requires an independent investigation so that it’s credible.”

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“I do have a problem with the entire profession being seen as unable to police themselves, especially when, in this agency, you don’t get away with doing something that’s wrong and that has been proven time and time again,” he said. “An entire profession should not be [told], ‘You can’t handle dealing with your own.’”

When a reporter asked him about concerns that law enforcement investigations into their own personnel could be biased, Knezovich said: “There is no tainting that investigation. What you basically did is call this agency a liar.”

Knezovich was out of town and unavailable for comment today.

Leslie Cushman, a citizen sponsor of I-940 who helped write the initiative, says that the requirement of independent investigations is to improve public trust in law enforcement and ensure impartiality.

“The goal is to get a fair and credible investigation. It’s to improve trust between the public and law enforcement and it’s to improve community safety,” she says. “The message is not that the involved agency can’t be trusted. The message is that the law requires an independent investigation so that it’s credible.”

Cushman adds that the requirement was also a recommendation from former President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

“This is just best practice,” she says. “It’s not harebrained, it’s what law enforcement itself views as best practice. And it’s state law.”

Steve Strachan, executive director of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs and a member of the group of community and law enforcement stakeholders that hashed out the rules for I-940, says that Knezovich’s concerns are “well taken.”

“You have these two competing interests. One is to ensure that the best possible investigation is done as promptly as possible while at the same time you have to ensure a completely independent investigation,” he says. “There’s a constant tension there and that’s something that we’ll continue to look at.”

But Strachan adds that independent investigations into police shootings are a “best practice.” 

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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.