Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich would rather talk about his responsibilities as a steward of public safety than discuss the duties of a politician that often accompany his office like the media obligations of a high-profile head coach.
At the same time, the local face of law enforcement has learned that success on the campaign trail often determines the state of public safety itself.
It was that way in 2008 when Knezovich led the effort to bring back Crime Check – the popular nonemergency reporting number – that had been taken away because of a funding shortfall. The sheriff and other Crime Check supporters described how elimination of the resource had led to half the number of incident reports and a glaring void on the community-policing front.
In May 2008, voters overwhelmingly approved the reinstatement of Crime Check on 66.2 percent of ballots.
“My job is to go to the community and tell them what the needs are,” Knezovich said. “When you take the time to talk to people about public safety, they get it. I truly thank the citizens for caring.”
Knezovich succeeded longtime County Sheriff Mark Sterk in 2006, defeating former Spokane Valley Police Chief Cal Walker in the September primary and James Flavel in November’s general election. He will be on the ballot again this November, striving for another four years.
In the meantime, Knezovich is dealing with a myriad of concerns – at or near the top his list is trying to coordinate support for a new jail facility while dealing with the reoccurring demands of a strained county budget. When the city of Spokane announced earlier this month that it was considering the possibility of launching its own corrections project, Knezovich admits he was surprised, but emphasized that local jurisdictions “must continue to work together.”
“I understand that they’re trying to cover their bases,” he said. “The main thing is that we’re not going to be successful without collaboration in local government. It’s more important for the citizens that we try to work out a resolution that is in the best interests of the community.”
Earlier this month, the county received the results of a study concluding that the best site for a new vertical jail tower would be next to the existing Spokane County Jail. Locations in Airway Heights and the Medical Lake/Interstate 90 interchange – where horizontal configurations would be built – ranked second and third.
County officials announced last week that plans are underway for a six-month public information campaign involving the jail project that will include a funding proposal on the ballot next April. A public hearing on the jail discussion is scheduled for May 12 before the county commissioners.
Knezovich said it will be “critical for leaders to step up” in the effort to build adequate detention facilities.
“The decisions we’re making now are going to affect this community for decades,” he said.
As part of the sheriff’s ongoing endeavors to reduce recidivism, Knezovich stands behind the value of programs like community corrections, designed to provide those who have been sentenced with job skills, help in overcoming substance abuse and additional support in readjusting to life after prison. In finding dollars to fund such programs, Knezovich said he continues “to work hard to restructure and find all the efficiencies we can find.”
Between presentations on local law enforcement’s collaboration with the Department of Emergency Management and the typical schedule of appearances at a variety of community events and fund-raisers, Knezovich has been meeting with representatives from the city of Spokane Valley to discuss a renewal of the public safety contract. After a history of year-to-year agreements, the sheriff said he is hopeful that a five-year deal can be finalized.
“It’s difficult on personnel, not knowing what their status is,” he said. “This would give us more stability.”