Restoring public trust in law enforcement
In Our Opinion
It’s a difficult concept to live up to sometimes, and yet it’s one we all value and expect from one another.
Trust is especially important when it comes to law enforcement. Those we trust to enforce the law fairly we also trust to be honest, and not break the law themselves. When they break this public trust by lying, acting unethically or illegally it erodes our trust in them, and conversely the law itself.
That’s bad for society. Unfortunately we have recent, local examples of unethical misbehavior that were found to be reasonable grounds for termination – termination required in order to maintain the integrity of the law enforcement agency and the public trust that these civil servants are not above the law.
And yet some of these officers were given their old jobs back because an independent arbitrator, while agreeing there was reason for termination and the process followed, decided there were extenuating circumstances to overrule the decision of the officer’s supervisor. That’s bad not only for public trust, but departmental morale.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is trying to change that by proposing an amendment to the RCW Chapter on Criminal Justice Training Commission – Education and Training Standards Boards (RCW 43.101) that would make sure an arbitrator’s personal decision is not substituted for that of a sheriff or police chief in these cases.
We support the sheriff’s proposal, as do sheriffs in all 38 of the remaining state counties, the Spokane County Board of Commissioners, police chiefs and several state legislators. We support it for several reasons.
First, language is included in the amendment that preserves due process of discovery for law enforcement employees’ accused of illegal or dishonest acts. If upon review the arbitrator finds problems with the evidence, flaws in the process and or its execution, he or she can overturn the decision. If however the arbitrator’s review finds the evidence supports the decision, and the process was proper and adhered to, the decision to terminate must stand.
This would remove such arbitrary reasoning for reinstatement such as “Nobody got hurt,” or “The crime wasn’t committed in public,” or “Yes it was unethical to have a jail inmate do jumping jacks naked but the jailer was a long time employee who made a bad decision and anyway is considered the jail’s ‘class clown.’”
We also support the amendment because it defines specifically what an illegal act is: “the commission of any crime or act of moral turpitude in an official capacity including but not limited to murder, rape, burglary, theft, fraud, malicious mischief, arson or any crime involving domestic violence.” Frankly, it’s a shame we should even have to remind law enforcement personnel that they can’t commit these acts and expect to retain the public’s trust, or a public paycheck, but alas, such is the case.
Public employee unions have accused Knezovich of trying to take away employee rights, particularly of due process, but as we stated above, those rights are protected. And if unions would take a second look, they might see the amendment actually protects their rights by enabling law enforcement leaders to remove the 1 percent of scofflaws whose actions cast a bad light on the other 99 percent of good, honest officers.
Law enforcement personnel take an oath to protect and serve the public, not each other. Being reinstated in their positions after termination for obvious and defined reasons creates the impression that law enforcement is above the law – not subject to it like the rest of us.
It bestows a special privilege that does not exist, eroding respect and creating questions of honesty in individuals we trust to be honest.
And trust is why Knezovich’s amendment must become law.