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Doug Clark: Acting chief failed to act responsibly

Sun., July 16, 2006

I have no control over what happens once I turn in my column and it heads off to the press room. So there’s a chance that by the time you read this, Jim Nicks has submitted his resignation, admitted he’s a disgrace to his blues and skulked off, never to darken our Public Safety Building again.

If that’s the case, you can stop reading here.

If not, well, I guess I’m right. Spokane’s acting police chief really is as dumb and as shameless as I suspect him to be.

Nicks’ whitewashing of the ugly details surrounding the death of Otto Zehm stinks worse than all that raw human sewage recently found flowing into the Spokane River.

On May 30, Nicks assured citizens that his officers acted properly when they Tasered, clubbed and hogtied the mentally ill janitor on March 18 in a Spokane convenience store.

Zehm was deprived of oxygen while these officers were doing their duty.

He died two days later.

While defending his troops, Nicks tarred the late Zehm as a menacing figure with a 2-liter bottle of soda pop who lunged at an officer. That story seemed awfully suspicious. But who knew? Nicks had home court advantage over the rest of us. He got to sing his song before we were allowed to watch the in-store videotape showing what really happened to Zehm on that awful day.

Spokane Prosecutor Steve Tucker for months kept the surveillance footage away from inquiring minds. It finally took the threat of a public records lawsuit from The Spokesman-Review for Big Steve to see the light and unseal the videotape.

Now it’s available for the world to watch. And what a different scenario to emerge.

No wonder this thing was sealed. If I were a prosecutor or a cop, I wouldn’t want anybody looking at it either.

The videotape shows no lunge. No soda bottle. No violent resisting of arrest. Basically, the tape shows Zehm holding up his hands in a retreating manner before getting the crap whaled out of him.

So on Thursday Nicks had to admit – reluctantly, I might add – that he pretty much gave us citizens a bum steer on that lunge and soda fable. A more jaded individual might interpret this as old-fashioned lying. But Nicks said he wasn’t out to intentionally mislead anybody. He was just going with what information he had.

OK. I’m a fair guy. Give Nicksy the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the acting chief hadn’t bothered to carefully examine all of the evidence before running his mouth and handing Spokane a bill of goods. In that case, Nicks is no liar – he’s just incompetent. Either way, the guy should go. Really. Nicks has run the credibility of his police department smack into an iceberg.

Who can take his leadership seriously now? Why should anyone believe anything he has to say?

Too bad we can’t turn to City Hall for some serious administrative ass-kicking. But as usual, Mayor Dennis Hession is standing tall as Spokane’s shining beacon of reticence.

In a Saturday news story, Hession told a reporter that before taking any action he was willing to wait and see what Tucker is going to do about all of this.

At least the mayor still looks great in a suit.

Police have a tough, tough job. They are routinely exposed to danger.

They often face the worst elements of society. They are under pressure few of us will ever know, and once in a while mistakes are made, with terrible results.

Mistakes were made with Otto Zehm. He was inaccurately suspected of being a thief. The first officer who caught up with Zehm in the store obviously thought he was dealing with a potentially dangerous man. But what happened after that is hard to justify. Once he was hobbled, Zehm was left on his stomach, which restricts breathing and violates police protocol. To keep him from spitting on anyone, a non-rebreather mask was placed on Zehm’s face without an attached oxygen tank. That forced the helpless, agitated man to try to breathe through a nickel-size air hole.

One officer noted in a report that although Zehm was mostly incoherent, at one point he managed to say, “All I wanted was a Snickers.” This is a horror story. I’m shocked that citizens aren’t marching through the streets in protest.

Soon Spokane will select a new police chief. I pity whoever has to come and try to right this sinking ship.

But as lousy and formidable as the job appears to be, it will be easier if Nicks isn’t around.

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