This week, Spokane County, Washington, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich had to answer for a misspelled advertisement that he inexplicably paid to post in Times Square, New York. The electronic billboard was, he said, a recruitment tactic and was also missing the “g” in Washington. In a YouTube video, Knezovich complained about the local press’s headlines, which focused on the error. He stands, inexplicably, beside the podium, leaning as if drinking a beer at a bar, while addressing his imaginary audience, which is mostly the press (with whom he has refused to engage directly). Knezovich accused the media of “exploiting” a misspelling.
Of course, he didn’t address the central question, which was why did he put a want ad in Times Square? He said he did the same in places like Portland, Austin, Texas, and Denver, Colorado, all cities, Knezovich alleges without evidence, where law enforcement feel “disrespected.”
Knezovich had a bull doggish retort to all of the attacks. The cost of the ads -- $12,000 for the Times Square one alone (I assume this is for a day or two), which came out of the COVID relief money? Well, Knezovich spat back, the county would save “millions” on overtime by hiring more deputies, plus the priceless “public safety.”
What about the spelling error? Well, first, he said in a Facebook comment, only “woke elites” care about spelling, and, anyway, it was an honest mistake that was being fixed. Nor do police unions care! Spelling is dumb.
The media company, Outfront Media, has an entire page of social responsibility and “diversity” which is …okay.
There’s also the issue of vaccines. Knezovich is one of dozens of sheriffs who are refusing to enforce vaccine mandates, not because, they say, vaccines are bad (he was open to the “pros and cons”), but because of freedom. This is a selling point to his department – there’s a green banner on the bottom of a recruitment video he recently released.
He’s missing the whole point, of course. The point is, why is Knezovich using money – COVID relief funding no less – to post billboards across the country, when, according to his own account, he only can hire a handful of deputies? Are the local applicants so insufficient?
Knezovich claims that his problem is a lack of staff. But, it’s not clear that he does have a staffing emergency (in his video, the sheriff cites Seattle’s police department, which lost 300 officers over the last year and none because of a vaccine mandate thus far).
As I wrote in Slate this week, law enforcement officials, particularly union leaders and sheriffs, are making a lot of noise about a problem that largely doesn’t seem to exist.
Let’s look at the facts on the ground in Spokane. Knezovich has a budget of $656 million with a general fund of about $200.8 million. He agreed to slow hiring – he says he needs ten more deputies but agreed to hire six, focusing on lateral hires who are already trained as opposed to training up a new class. (No comment really about the type of deputy he is hiring – sheriffs have a tendency to just recruit like the military and assume everyone is a grunt at first.)
He spent $12,000 on the Times Square billboard, but how much on the others? He won’t say. How much overtime are his deputies clocking? He won’t say, other than “millions.”
It’s all part of Knezovich’s schtick, of course. He’s infamous for, as they say, pissing off the right and the left. He has opposed white supremacy and white supremacy-adjacent groups, no small problem in Eastern Washington, which is just across the Idaho border from where the Aryan Nation used to hold their yearly jamboree.
But he’s also opposed the left, and, one might argue, had used his policing power more aggressively against left-leaning groups. Last fall, Jeremy Logan, co-chair of a local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America, said that the Spokane County Aheriff’s Office arrested him en route to a BLM protest, put him in an unmarked van, and detained him for a day for the convenience of federal investigators. Sheriff Knezovich says Logan is lying; he also lashed out at HuffPo for publishing the story AND claimed without evidence that “antifa” came from out of town for a May 2020 protest.
There’s a lot to say about sheriffs taking to social media – Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva famously does his live event every week in which he routinely rails on journalists, county officials, and the district attorney’s office – a platform where they can say anything they want and not get fact-checked. The chatty format allows for an informal-style discourse that appeals to sheriffs. No one can ask them questions in person. There’s no button-holing or protestors in the room. They get to use props.
It might just be typical social media-influencer stuff, except those sheriffs use the opportunity to rail against journalists, especially local journalists, who are the very people a community counts on to provide information. It’s not the only – or even the most dangerous – way they harass journalists. Sheriffs and law enforcement can also send cops to your house or arrest you and take your stuff or kettle you or serve you with scary subpoenas or neglect to defend you in a riot.
But two thoughts here. One, journalists aren’t able to just say what they like in an empty echo chamber. They have editors and publishers and readers. They are, in most cases, held very responsible for things they screw up especially anything critical of a law enforcement agency.
Some well-meaning progressives (albeit they are mostly people who have never had to chicken-scratch their way in journalism and beg for their $250 payment six months after publication) argue journalists are too beholden to law enforcement. Some probably are. Some are fighting with their editors the whole way, making decisions about what should stay and what should go. (I told someone that every time there’s something critical of law enforcement, you know the writer fought and/or made other trade-offs.)
Here’s the flip side – if journalists don’t cow-tow to law enforcement they get harassed, injured, arrested, or called out on social media. Are those progressives willing to do something about that? How can journalists be expected to defy law enforcement when there is no protection when they do? (To be fair, there are lawyers who help people get out of jail, but I don’t see anyone taking a stand when the sheriff takes to Facebook Live and mocks a journalist – usually a woman or a POC. Go figure.)
I digress. The second thing is that I think these call-outs and YouTube videos and shame-y PowerPoints are unethical. I really do. No law enforcement association is going to protect journalists (unless they hire them as information officers). It’s bullying. It’s harassment. And – I know I sound kind of old – it’s not very nice. It makes a hard job harder. It’s bad enough when established journalists working at the LA Times get mocked. But how on earth is an independent journalist, a freelancer who can do investigative work or otherwise probe into matters local journalists may not have time to do, supposed to feel when that is your reward?
If your intention is actually to make journalism better, maybe consider the impact of the absolute unchecked power of police propaganda. And tell Sheriff Ozzie to please stop leaning on the podium like he’s chatting with the fellas.