SPOKANE, Washington—Ozzie Knezovich seems to revel in pissing people off.
“The fact that the extreme left and extreme right hate my guts, I’m good with that,” he told The Daily Beast. “Because I don’t much like them either.”
As sheriff of Spokane County in eastern Washington for the past 15 years, Knezovich certainly knows about extremism. He oversees law enforcement in the heart of militia country, just a short drive over the Idaho border from what used to be the headquarters for the neo-Nazi group The Aryan Nations.
As the GOP continues its lurch off the deep end, with even some elected officials participating in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, and state party leaders making common cause with militias, Knezovich, a Republican, is an outspoken voice against far-right extremism.
But he’s no friend to their enemies, either.
Knezovich is tall and soft-spoken, but blunt. He’s got a bit of a country twang that betrays his small-town Wyoming upbringing, and lends an understated tone to wild stories of armed groups, death threats, and violence.
He’s put skinheads in prison, called for a militia-friendly state legislator to be arrested for domestic terrorism, and been attacked on air by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. He walked in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade that a white supremacist tried to bomb.
Knezovich thinks America will be grappling with extremism for many years to come. But despite his stand against anti-government groups, he has also drawn the ire of social-justice advocates—and praise from some Republicans—for his habit of lumping in left-wing protesters with dangerous, far-right extremists.
“I think that Ozzie is one of the few that I’ve seen that are willing to call out bad behavior on both the left and the right,” said Jennifer Ellis, a Republican activist who co-founded the anti-extremist group Idaho Conservatives. “And anyone who says he’s not a true conservative Republican doesn’t know what they’re talking about.”
But plenty on the far-right do say exactly that, and like a lot of the moderating forces within the GOP, Knezovich might be on his way out. In 2019, he announced that he would not run in 2022, though he left the door open to another run in his conversation with The Daily Beast.
If this is it for him, he’ll be leaving with a long list of enemies.
That’s because in a region where legislators have been accused of plotting an armed standoff with federal agents, where the John Birch Society has deep connections to the GOP, and so-called “constitutional sheriffs,” like Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney, rebel against pandemic orders, Knezovich has rejected all of them.
And he thinks there’s plenty to be worried about, even after the federal crackdown on rioters and some of the extremist groups who organized on Jan 6.
Knezovich’s office is in Spokane, a city of about 220,000 people dotted with turn-of-the-century brick buildings. But he and his deputies enforce the law in the surrounding rural areas, including swaths of rugged, forested mountains that are part of the so-called American Redoubt, where adherents to far-right ideologies and militia members move to get off the grid and away from the government.
Knezovich has been especially critical of these movements, which have flourished in Washington and Idaho for decades, and which he accuses of trying to spark a civil war.
“These are tyrants, these are true dictators that want to pull our country apart,” he said of paramilitary groups and their supporters. “And they want to hide behind, ‘Well, America was born out of revolution.’”
The feeling is mutual. In a scathing text message declining an interview, the leader of the Washington Three Percent militia, Matt Marshall, told The Daily Beast that Knezovich is a liar and unfairly lumps disparate right-wing groups together.
“I have no interest in participating with anything having to do with Ozzie,” he wrote.
Members of the Three Percent movement have been arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol—including in a new conspiracy indictment unsealed this past week—though none is affiliated with Marshall’s group. Marshall has not been accused of any crimes or involvement with the insurrection.
Militias are far from the only groups Knezovich has upset.
In a sprawling conversation at the sheriff’s department headquarters in Spokane, Knezovich almost seemed to have a tick when talking about far-right extremism. He’d be discussing the attack on the U.S. Capitol or the report accusing two state legislators of domestic terrorism, and then he’d lurch back to Antifa or a general statement about the “far left.”
It was as if he wanted, no matter the dissonance, to make sure he was evening things out.
For example, Knezovich pushes back on criticism that police across the country unfairly target communities of color.
“I look at Black Lives Matter in two realms: Black Lives Matter matter dot humanity—I’m there with you all day long. Black Lives Matter dot org? Uh uh.”
That kind of talk upsets plenty of people on the left. A question about his legacy often elicits a long pause, and there’s almost always a “but” in any conversation about him.
For Kate Bitz, a program manager at the left-leaning anti-extremism watchdog Western States Center, Knezovich has a frustrating, mixed record.
“Knezovich has really intimate knowledge of just how ugly things can get for local elected officials and law enforcement when anti-democratic groups begin to build real local power,” she told The Daily Beast. “He is a lot more vocal about this issue than many other local elected officials and law enforcement leaders, which is great.”
Then comes the inevitable “but.”
“That said, his analysis of our local situation (in Eastern Washington) is very much wedded to this kind of ‘both sides’ conception of politics,” Bitz said. “So we’ve also seen him habitually describe groups that organize for racial justice as being supposedly equally dangerous to law enforcement as the far right.”
Indeed, far-right violence has caused for more deaths in the U.S. than left-wing violence, according to one recent Washington Post analysis.
Kurtis Robinson worked closely with Knezovich on issues of race relations as Spokane Chapter NAACP president until last year. He praised the sheriff for his handling of an allegation that one of his white deputies was using racial slurs, and said Knezovich offered a sympathetic ear to the concerns of the Black community.
“And then other times, I’ve just been like, ‘Who is this person that I’m listening to talking right now?’” Robinson said.
Robinson pointed to Knezovich’s embrace of controversial “killology” training, long criticized for militarizing police and increasing the likelihood of police encounters turning violent. Robinson is also frustrated with what he sees as Knezovich’s focus on a jail expansion over reforming policing tactics.
“And that’s the problem, that creates the kind of mixed bag of feelings for people of color,” Robinson said.
Knezovich doesn’t seem bothered by the criticism. He says what’s keeping him up is what he sees as an existential threat to American democracy.
“What happened on January 6 was the worst thing that I think I’ve ever seen happen in my nation, because that threatened the entire stability of this nation,” he said.
He says unless moderate voters start showing up to primary elections, we’re only going to see more and more extremists take office, entrenching their once-fringe views deeper into the mainstream.
In other words, the sheriff who has had a front-row seat to the resurgence of far-right movements doesn’t have a rosy outlook about the future of extremist-driven instability in America.
“We will live through about 10 years of hard times, because that’s the cycle of these things,” he said. “And we’re in at the very beginning of this.”