Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich thinks the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office got the better end of the deal in spending $12,000 for two days of billboard advertising in Times Square in New York City to recruit deputies.
That’s in spite of – or perhaps even because of – all the media attention the Big Apple campaign garnered due to a misspelling in the advertisement. “Washington” was originally spelled “Washinton,” before the ad agency responsible quickly corrected the typo.
That amounted to lots of free publicity generated, Knezovich admitted, which seems to be paying off in the form of 10 New York City police officers contacting the Sheriff’s Office about its hiring process.
“We’re very aggressive in what we do,” Knezovich said of his strategy to recruit deputies to his shorthanded department, including offering $15,000 hiring bonuses.
The Times Square ad follows the Sheriff’s Office taking out billboards in Seattle, Portland, Denver and Austin, Texas.
Knezovich said he placed the billboards in cities where elected officials have not supported their law enforcement agencies and people.
Plans call for billboards in Southern California, Knezovich said.
Altogether, he said his office needs to fill 30 positions.
“We have to hire 20 deputies to get to required staffing levels,” Knezovich said, with another 10 to be hired to fill anticipated vacancies next year.
Deputies have been working lots of overtime, the sheriff said, noting mandated overtime was close to becoming a reality.
The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office currently has 235 commissioned personnel, from the sheriff to the newest deputy.
Around the country, many law enforcement agencies are experiencing staffing shortages.
“The biggest reason we’re in this predicament – and this is a nationwide problem – is because of 2020,” Knezovich said before making an oblique reference to the highly publicized killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota, during an arrest in May 2020 that sparked violent civil unrest in cities across the country.
The officer has since been convicted of murder.
Knezovich blamed “high-velocity media and activist politicians” for fanning the flames in the wake of Floyd’s death and characterizing police officers as “evil, racist, white supremacists.”
The next generation of young people don’t want to become police officers, Knezovich explained, which is why he is focusing on lateral hires.
With fewer people wanting to become police officers, Knezovich – among other law enforcement officials – has focused on luring police away from other agencies, including some in Washington state.
Sweeping COVID-19 mandates by Gov. Jay Inslee that went into effect on October 18 have resulted in the Washington State Patrol losing 74 commissioned officers, including 67 troopers, six sergeants and one captain, according to a next-day press release.
Six Seattle Police Department employees were let go, with 103 waiting on religious and medical exemptions, officials said.
“We don’t have mandates,” Knezovich, who is vaccinated, said.
He has indicated he is not seeking out unvaccinated officers.
Another factor in retention and recruiting woes for the Sheriff’s Department, according to Knezovich, are police reforms passed by the legislature and signed into law by Inslee earlier this year.
The measures, among other things, ban chokeholds, neck restraints and no-knock warrants, as well as restricting when police officers can engage in car chases and requiring police to exhaust appropriate de-escalation tactics.
“They made it more difficult,” he said of the laws’ impact on keeping deputies on the force.
Knezovich described his recruiting methods as fiscally sound – that is, within the department’s budget. Down 30 deputies right now, he explained that money that was otherwise unspent helped pay for the campaign to lure away police from other departments, including hiring bonuses, renting billboard space, and social media efforts.
“It cost citizens nothing but money that was already budgeted,” Knezovich said, adding that he’s always run the Sheriff’s Office as a business.
The department has a $140,000 annual recruiting budget.
Knezovich said he firmly believes in staying within budget, adding that people in government who are against spending caps "have lost their minds."