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Candidates for Spokane Co. Sheriff find common ground on crime, disagree on management of the department

Montage by Brandon Hollingsworth, SPR News
Left to right: Wade Nelson, John Nowels, Mike Zollars

Among the three men running for Spokane County sheriff this year, there are some broad similarities. All either currently work in the sheriff’s office, or have in the recent past. They have long experience in law enforcement. All are running under the Republican banner. All believe they are qualified to hold the county’s top law enforcement job, and committed to doing so. None have held elected office before.

But there are also differences among Wade Nelson, John Nowels, and Mike Zollars. The key fault line is how they feel about incumbent sheriff Ozzie Knezovich – a man who isn’t even in the race.

Knezovich declined to run for a fifth term this year. But his brusque style and his stewardship of the department have been sufficiently polarizing that his presence is felt, even though his name doesn’t appear on the ballot.

Wade Nelson worked in the office for two decades before taking a leave of absence last year because he was increasingly dissatisfied with the way the department operates. He cites chronically low staffing and poor transparency as examples.

“If you look at the last 10 years of our department, how our administration has been running our department, how they’re currently running it, and then how it’s going to be in the future – and that’s what concerns me,” Nelson said.

Mike Zollars retired last fall after more than 32 years with the sheriff’s department. He was motivated to run because he feels Knezovich’s leadership has caused problems for the agency and its employees.

“I’ve had an opportunity to speak with a number of deputies…and the recurring theme, and the word that they use, is that they want a regime change,” Zollars said.

According to Zollars and Nelson, there’s a morale problem in the department, fueled in part by staff shortages and a feeling that the sheriff’s office has dropped the ball in recruiting new employees, and making current employees feel valued enough to stay. John Nowels acknowledged staffing is tight, but he said the department is already working to hire more deputies, and he wants to hire more if he’s elected. And he said allegations of a morale problem are overblown.

“You know, if we have 300 employees, there is always going to be a group of employees who are unhappy,” Nowels said. “We have had employees who have come up and said, ‘Don’t believe it. It’s not the majority of us.’”

Of the three candidates, only Nowels, currently an undersheriff overseeing the department’s Investigative and Intelligence Division, has Knezovich’s endorsement. While Nowels said it’s important to establish his own identity in the race, he said he isn’t worried about being identified with Knezovich.

“Sheriff Knezovich has won re-election handily since he was appointed in 2006,” Nowels said. “So to say that I’m ‘Ozzie 2.0’ and attach a negative connotation to it, is somewhat disingenuous. Not everybody likes him, but he’s certainly popular.”

Knezovich is known for using the communications tools at his disposal – the local press, the county sheriff’s department YouTube channel, his Twitter account, and a podcast – to criticize people he disagrees with. Nowels said he isn’t sure that’s the best way to address problems that end up on the sheriff’s desk, or to handle relationships with the press, other elected officials and the community.

“Let’s talk about how we agree. Let’s get the personal attacks out of it. Let’s respect each other, let’s develop trust, and let’s affect policies and enact legislation that really does keep our communities safe,” Nowels said. “So that’s how I might be different than Ozzie Knezovich now.”

On matters related to crime, Nelson, Nowels and Zollars tend to find more agreement. All three candidates said a slate of police reform laws approved by the Washington legislature over the last few years has hobbled law enforcement’s ability to keep up with crime and prosecute offenders. They also said recidivism is a problem in Spokane County, attributing many crimes to the same relatively small number of repeat offenders.

All three candidates also said the county needs to replace its outdated, overcrowded jail and build a new detention facility that has a broader mandate than simply holding people in custody.

“We need a facility that meets the needs not only of just incarceration, but also has the capability to be a rehabilitation capability as well,” Nelson said. “And to do that, we’re going to have to have a different type of facility that has different types of environments we can put people in so that we can do that.”

The three candidates are also open to alternative or rehab programs as part of the county’s criminal justice policies – as long as they’re confident the alternatives will work. Nowels said he’s been intrigued by a program in Arizona that had success in reducing recidivism. Zollars said he tends to favor a carrot-and-stick approach.

“Either you do this, or this punishment occurs,” he said. “You have to have that leverage, if you will, to get them to take part in the programs, whether they be drug or alcohol, anger management, mental health, whatever program they particularly need.”

In an attempt to address precursory elements that can lead to crime, Nowels wants to build a community-oriented system in which deputies are assigned to regions of the county. The idea, he said, is for the deputies get to know residents and business owners, learn the dynamics of their assigned area and build trust. In so doing, Nowels hopes people will be more forthcoming about concerns they have, or when they think something suspicious is happening.

Nelson said the sheriff’s office already has deputies assigned to various parts of the county, and that staffing is so short that the community-oriented strategy can’t be pulled off successfully. Nowels acknowledged the community-oriented policing plan will have to wait until staffing levels can be built up, which he said can be done in about eighteen months.

Nelson, Nowels and Zollars are split on whether the sheriff’s office does a good enough job communicating with the public and the press, especially when the department’s actions are criticized or mistakes are made.

“From the sheriff’s department, we have the tendency…if we screw up or do something wrong, we don’t really want to talk about it,” Nelson said. He wants the department to be more open about its mistakes, which he believes will in turn help build the office’s reputation and strengthen public trust.

Nowels dismissed the transparency claim as false: “I would challenge him – Sheriff Knezovich would challenge him – to tell us where we’re not being transparent as an agency.”

Zollars says in general, the sheriff’s office needs to better explain itself to the public, and listen to feedback.

“Let’s have meetings where we talk with people. What are their concerns? Let’s open things up, and show them what we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” he said.

No Democrat registered to run in this year’s election. The two candidates that gather the most votes in the August primary will advance to the November general election.

Ballots may be placed in drop boxes located at most public libraries and the Spokane County elections office on West Gardner Avenue in Spokane. On August 1 and 2, voters may submit ballots at the CenterPlace Event Center in Spokane Valley. Ballots may also be submitted by mail, provided they are postmarked on or before Election Day, Tuesday, August 2.

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for nearly twenty years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.