Spin Control

Word.

What’s in a word? When the word is “lunge”, it could be quite a bit.

That’s lunge the verb, as in the Spokane Police Department’s repeated insistence that Otto Zehm “lunged” at Officer Karl Thompson the night of March 18, 2006, in an altercation that led to Zehm being struck with a police baton, jolted with a Taser, handcuffed, hog-tied, going unconscious, slipping into a coma, being declared brain dead, and eventually dying.

That word was used by Acting Spokane Police Chief Jim Nicks the night of the altercation, who had been called to the scene.“The suspect lunged at the officer during the initial contact and basically a fight occurred at that time,” he told the assembled news media.

All the bad things that happened, it seemed, sprang from that lunge.

But Nicks wasn’t there when the altercation started. . .

. . . and neither were any other police officers. So someone had to tell him that Zehm lunged at Thompson so that Nicks could tell that to the news media. Nicks and other police officials continued to use the verb in press releases and statements – until the release of video from security cameras inside the store showed no such lunge on Zehm’s part.

In fact, he was doing sort of the opposite, backing up.

Documents filed last week in the civil and criminal cases indicate no one can remember who first said “lunged”. Nicks said someone told him that night, but he couldn’t remember. Different police officers and detectives on the scene insisted that no, they didn’t initially say Zehm lunged at Thompson. They may have heard it that night, but they couldn’t remember from whom. Or maybe they heard it the next day, or possibly later, when they saw or read news accounts.

The interesting thing, from an etymological standpoint, is that no one ever seemed to use any synonym for lunged. Zehm wasn’t described as lurching or plunging forward, leaping at, pushing toward. Always lunging.

The court documents indicate that federal prosecutors also find that interesting, and it seems unlikely their interest is in sending the department a new Thesaurus.




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