‘This state law has done a lot of damage’: Sheriff slams new guidelines for officer-involved shooting investigations

SPOKANE, Wash. — A shooting Sunday in Spokane Valley put a man in the hospital and four sheriff’s deputies on leave, but we still do not know what exactly happened in the moments leading up to it. Spokane County sheriff Ozzie Knezovich blames the lack of information on a voter-approved initiative which has changed the way these investigations are handled.

Initiative 940 was approved by voters in 2018, then signed into law, along with revisions in HB 1064 in February 2019. Part of the law called on the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission to develop new criteria for officer-involved shooting investigations. Knezovich takes issue with those guidelines, which went into effect in December.

The sheriff used a press briefing at Sunday’s shooting as a platform to speak out against the law and the guidelines it brought about, saying in part “deputies began giving orders, shots were fired and that’s just about as much as I can give you due to the new state law which states that we can’t really do anything anymore on scene.”

Before the guidelines were put in place, agencies involved in an officer or deputy shooting wouldn’t be able to lead the investigation that would follow, but they were able to assist. According to the new criteria, an involved agency cannot have any part of the investigation. Now, officers with the involved agency are expected to secure the scene, then wait for an independent investigative team (IIT) to arrive and collect evidence. According to the guidelines, the IIT will be made up of “certified peace officer investigators, civilian crime scene specialists, and at least two non-law enforcement community representatives.”

“When you start talking about changing the way officers have policed for a very long time, I’m not surprised that it’s not, you know, immediately embraced,” said Monica Alexander, advanced training division manager with the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission.

Sunday marked just the second deputy shooting Knezovich has seen since the new rules went into effect. He worries the changes could wind up compromising the investigation.

“Whenever you have to wait to bring a team together you have the potential of missing evidence or missing a witness that we didn’t go out and try to grab like we used to,” he said at a press conference Monday.

“An independent investigation team being made up of several different agencies could take a little more time to get there, but whoever is there first from the IIT team would take control of that scene and start the work that’s needed to be done,” said Alexander in a phone interview Monday.

Alexander says the guidelines are meant to build transparency and trust with the community. According to the criteria, the IIT is required to provide at least one update a week, even if there is no new information. The chief or sheriff of the involved agency will get limited briefings, but no other ongoing information. Knezovich argues a lack of access will translate to a lack of information for the community.

“My ability to keep this community updated and to give them what is going on is now severely curtailed,” he said. “If you ask me about what has gone on in the last 24 hours, have no idea.”

Knezovich is concerned the new guidelines will cut off resources for local departments.

“If, per se, SPD has their next officer-involved shooting, it will pull every investigative asset that I have to cover that event,” he said. “That means no other investigations are going to be done within Spokane County until we get it stabilized.”

Alexander said the commission isn’t looking to strip departments of resources.

“By working collectively like that and having different agencies, you bring different skill sets,” she said.

According to the new guidelines, equipment (e.g., drones) from the involved agency cannot be used by the IIT unless it is critical to the investigation, there is no reasonable alternative and the use is approved by the IIT leader. The non-law enforcement community members must be made aware of its use.

Knezovich says he intends to fight the initiative and its guidelines eventually at the legislative level.