Does Washington state need to pass a law requiring our law enforcement officers to be honest?
Apparently so, says Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza and the other 38 county sheriffs across the state.
Most people would assume that any officer found lying or breaking the law would be dismissed from their job.
But Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who started this ball rolling, says that’s not so. He has twice tried to fire officers who have lied or broken laws and had his decision overturned by arbitrators appointed to rule on public safety labor/management disputes.
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In one case, a Spokane County deputy used a knife to slash the seats of a woman’s car during a routine traffic stop, leaving cuts in the shape of a swastika. Knezovich fired the officer, who appealed the discipline. The arbitrator called the incident a learning experience and rescinded the termination as excessive discipline.
In 2009, the state Supreme Court upheld another arbitrator’s ruling that a Kitsap County sheriff’s deputy could not be fired for 29 documented instances of lying and misconduct, because honesty was not an essential or specific job requirement.
The public expects law enforcement officers to tell the truth. Our system of justice depends on it.
When officers give evidence in court, a judge and jury must have confidence in the veracity of an officer’s testimony. If it is left to speculation whether or not an officer is lying, prosecutors would have difficulty getting convictions in even minor crimes.
The problem, Knezovich says, is that when sheriffs or police chiefs try to dismiss officers, the collective-bargaining process afforded public-safety employees usually ends in binding arbitration, where arbitrators can and often do amend the discipline handed out.
This has not happened in Thurston County. Snaza says he has worked hard to maintain a departmental reputation of high integrity and ethical behavior.
But he has cited seven deputies in the last two years for policy violations. All have resigned in lieu of being fired.
Rep. Kevin Parker, R-Spokane, is considering legislation that would eliminate the ability of arbitrators to soften any disciplinary measure if the sheriff or chief can prove an officer’s wrongdoing.
It’s a sensible change. The public not only expects honesty from law enforcement officers, it also expects sheriffs and chiefs to run clean departments. That must include the firing of officers who lie or commit criminal acts.
If voters don’t like how a sheriff is managing their agency, they can boot them out of office. The public has no such authority over arbitrators.
The overwhelming majority of officers are honest and their unions should welcome this change to the law. There’s no justification for protecting the rare bad cops from appropriate discipline.