Signs of the times: Spokane County Sheriff's Office spends $12,000 on electronic Times Square billboards

<p><p>Times Square is a study in flamboyance and excess.</p></p><p><p>On a typical day, more than 300,000 people walk through the iconic site. They come for the spectacle. To take selfies with naked, guitar-playing cowboys. To crane their necks and look up at skyscrapers. To drink in the sights, sounds and smells of the Center of the Universe.</p></p><p><p>It’s the gaudy ads that stick in many tourists’ minds. They remember anthropomorphic M&amp;Ms smiling at them from on high, McDonald’s golden arches and the 70-foot-high Coca-Cola billboard.</p></p><p><p>On Thursday, observant visitors might have noticed one ad sticking out among all the rest.</p></p><p><p>“SPOKANE COUNTY SHERIFF WASHINGTON STATE,” the colorful billboard reads. “HIRING 40 LATERAL OFFICERS. $15K HIRING BONUS.”</p></p><p><p>The Sheriff’s Office spent $12,000 for two days of advertising in Times Square. The ads, which run Thursday and Friday, might seem like an odd choice for a law enforcement agency 2,500 miles away, but it isn’t the first time this year the department has bought an out-of-state billboard.</p></p><p><p>Since spring, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich’s office has been buying billboard ads throughout the country. It’s part of Knezovich’s strategy to recruit more officers to his shorthanded department. The Times Square ad comes after the Sheriff’s Office took out billboards in Seattle, Portland, Denver and Austin, Texas.</p></p><p><p>Many law enforcement agencies throughout the country are short-staffed. Knezovich said his office has about 20 vacancies out of more than 225 authorized positions.</p></p><p><p>There are a handful of reasons departments are struggling to hire, but Knezovich and other law enforcement leaders say since 2020, fewer people have wanted to become police officers. Highly publicized police killings of Black people, including George Floyd’s murder last May, have hurt public opinion of law enforcement.</p></p><p><p>With fewer people wanting to become officers, Knezovich and others have focused on luring existing officers away from other agencies – those are known as lateral hires.</p></p><p><p>Knezovich said he has placed his billboards in cities where elected officials have spoken negatively about police officers.</p></p><p><p>“New York was one of the heaviest areas where their local leaders really came out and did not support their law enforcement, actually disrespected them,” he said.</p></p><p><p>Spokane County Deputy Sheriff’s Association President Greg Lance said he doesn’t have an issue with the Times Square billboard.</p></p><p><p>“The union is in favor of it,” Lance said, emphasizing that the staffing shortage is severe and forcing many officers to work overtime. “I think that’s a good strategy. Whether or not it’s actually working, I don’t know.”</p></p><p><p>The Times Square ad received criticism from many on social media. Lisa Brown, former majority leader of the Washington Senate and the current director of the state Department of Commerce, Tweeted about the ad, saying Knezovich is “addicted to attention.”</p></p><p><p> “#spokanecounty commissioners won’t rein him in, scrutinize his budget,” she wrote.</p></p><p><p>The Sheriff’s Office has a $140,000 annual recruiting budget, which Knezovich called “small compared to some of the agencies that are in trouble.”</p></p><p><p>He also said he got more than his money’s worth out of the ad and doesn’t think it was excessive.</p></p><p><p>“Let’s compare doing nothing and running continually short (on officers),” he said. “How much overtime is that costing the community? More importantly, how much lack of public safety do we cause by being short-staffed?”</p></p><p><p>Knezovich also said he anticipated media outlets would cover the ad, generating free publicity.</p></p><p><p>“That’s part of the strategy,” he said, noting that his previous billboard ads also got significant media coverage.</p></p><p><p>CNN Newsroom Anchor Ana Cabrera, a Washington State University alum and former KHQ anchor and reporter, interviewed Knezovich on Thursday morning. Knezovich said he told media outlets about the ad before it ran, hoping to be interviewed.</p></p><p><p>“It is a media explosion,” he said. “For the $12,000, I probably just gained $100,000 of free advertisement.”</p></p><p><p>And recruiting is a bidding war. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced an emergency order last week allowing the city to offer laterals $25,000 hiring bonuses, well over Spokane County’s $15,000.</p></p><p><p> According to a Tuesday story in the Washington Post, 34 New York City police officers were placed on leave this week after failing to get vaccinated. Brown accused Knezovich of specifically targeting unvaccinated police officers.</p></p><p><p>In a recruiting video released in October, the Sheriff’s Office emphasized “No Mandatory Vaccinations Required.” Knezovich, who is vaccinated, says he is not seeking out unvaccinated officers.</p></p><p><p>Knezovich said in April he planned to buy billboards on the East Coast, in addition to the ones his office had already purchased. He said he intends to buy more billboard ads in Southern California.</p></p><p><p>Many on social media also pointed out a typo in the ad. In the Sheriff Office’s original Twitter and Facebook posts, photos of the billboards showed Washington spelled as “Washinton,” without the “G.”</p></p><p><p>Knezovich said that was a mistake by the ad agency and added he’s “disgusted” that some media outlets have focused on the typo as opposed to the ad itself.</p></p><p><p>“I’ve seen juvenile before; this is just about as juvenile as it comes,” he said. “Some kid made a mistake and that was the headline.”</p></p><p><p><span class=”print_trim”><!—-></span></p></p><p><p>Buying the Times Square ad generated the publicity Knezovich sought, but the ad itself probably won’t be seen by many New York City police officers – at least not in person. The landmark isn’t a hotspot among New Yorkers. It’s a tourist attraction, viewed with disdain by many locals.</p></p><p><p>Overall, Knezovich said the billboard campaign has been highly successful and has helped lead to one of his department’s best recruiting years.</p></p><p><p>The Sheriff’s Office has hired 27 officers in 2021 and has another six going through the hiring process. The department’s 20 vacancies are a dramatic improvement compared with the 40 it had in April, Knezovich said.</p></p><p><p>More laterals have joined the department this year, too, Knezovich said. He said about 14 have come aboard this year, compared with seven in 2020.</p></p><p><p>Knezovich said he didn’t know off the top of his head if any of the 27 new hires are from Seattle, Portland, Denver or Austin.</p></p><p><p>“It worked out exactly the way we hoped it would,” Knezovich said of the Times Square billboard. “This has saved this community hundreds of thousands of dollars.”</p></p>