(The Center Square) – Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich wonders how the Washington Legislature can say the state is serious about solving gun violence when penal improvements have been abolished when guns are used to commit a crime be used.
“Does that sound like you’re really serious about solving gun violence in this state?” he asked a Zoom audience.
Knezovich delivered his presentation Thursday during a digital forum organized by the Spokane Business & Commercial Property Owners Council.
He blamed the legislature for much of the crime problems plaguing the state. He said the decriminalization of drugs and the curbing of most police prosecutions over the past year have reinforced a sense of lawlessness that began during the 2020 riots.
“Frankly, because this persecution law has not been changed, people are dying,” he said.
He said the problem has been exacerbated by local government leaders and judges adopting a “restorative justice” model for courts. He said philosophy is more concerned with what happens to perpetrators than victims and communities.
“It’s like Independence Day for criminals,” summarized Knezovich, who has 29 years of law enforcement experience and 16 years as a sheriff.
He added that society is not ready to look at how mental health laws are exacerbating the homelessness crisis. He said laws designed to prevent people from being institutionalized against their will have resulted in large numbers of the mentally ill on the streets.
Knezovich said several studies have shown that 85% of homeless people have mental health problems.
He said lawmakers’ decision to decriminalize drugs in favor of treatment also contributed to a growing number of addicts on the streets.
“Where’s the compassion in that?” he asked.
Another difficult conversation that had to be had, Knezovich said, was why minorities have higher incarceration rates. He said Spokane County has a “serious problem with our young African American population killing each other.”
“It’s a harsh reality,” he said.
Knezovich said that whenever he tried to initiate a discussion about what was going on in this demographic, he was labeled “white supremacist” or “racist” to end the dialogue.
“I hope that one day we’ll get back to that point as a society where we realize that we don’t arrest people because of the color of their skin. We arrest people for committing crimes,” he said.
Knezovich presented charts of crime trends to illustrate a 300 percent increase in homicides, a 44 percent increase in rapes, a 93 percent increase in auto thefts, and a differential increase in other property crimes over the past few years.
He said the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in early 2020, imposed restrictions on people going to jail, a contributing factor, and then lawmakers approved sweeping police reform measures in 2021. Those measures would have made it harder for law enforcement to do its job, he said.
“As a result, gang violence has exploded here,” he said.
Although “local news producers” and some city leaders had contested his crime statistics, Knezovich said they were carefully compiled and the data carefully checked by his administration.
“These crime stats have gone up and my assessment is that our community is in crisis,” he said.
Knezovich said the Democrats, who control the Legislature, had the opportunity to enact real police reform in 2013-14 with a proposal from sheriffs in all 39 counties, but they didn’t. He said sheriffs want the ability to more easily fire deputies who have been involved in unethical or illegal acts, which union rules make difficult.
“We couldn’t even get this legislation out of committee,” he said.
Another area that needed real reform but was not gaining traction was the “chaotic” training given to new recruits at the Burien Criminal Justice Training Center.
“The curriculum is not legally defensible,” he said of the “nightmare” tactics taught.
For example, Knezovich said new officers, deputies and soldiers were taught to approach a menacing scenario with a pistol, service weapon and taser drawn.
“It’s a recipe for disaster,” he said, asking why the Legislature had shown no interest in this and other training processes.
Knezovich said Spokane and major cities across Washington have major crime problems, while Idaho, 15 miles away, is not experiencing rampant lawlessness.
“Why is that? Because whoever commits a crime there goes to jail,” he said.
Given Spokane Prison’s overcrowding and efforts to secure a pre-trial release, it was unlikely anyone would serve more than three days in prison, he said.