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Our View: Police squandered public trust after Zehm’s death

Like a charge from a stun gun, the security video of Otto Zehm’s fateful struggle with cops is a searing jolt to the credibility of the Spokane Police Department and anyone who had viewed it before it was finally released to the public.

For four months, authorities had maintained the fiction that the mentally ill 36-year-old man lunged at the first responding officer inside the convenience store.

Didn’t happen.

The video from the March 18 confrontation shows Zehm strolling into the market and down an aisle. Seconds later, Officer Karl Thompson appears, rushes up to Zehm from behind and knocks him to the ground with a baton.

The Police Department told the public that Zehm turned to face Thompson with a 2-liter bottle of soda, which Thompson feared would be used as a weapon.

Sure doesn’t look like it.

The video shows Zehm turning and raising his hands as he retreated from Thompson. No bottle can be seen. In fact, his hands look to be empty. When reporters viewed the video with Assistant Chief Al Odenthal, they asked him to point out the bottle. He couldn’t. Did officers collect this purported weapon as evidence? If so, did they find Zehm’s fingerprints?

Acting Police Chief Jim Nicks also told the public at a May 30 news conference that after Zehm had been hogtied, he was placed on his side for “all” or “a majority” of the time.

Wrong. He was on his stomach most of the time.

That’s a crucial point, because the medical examiner said being in the prone position with ankles and feet cinched behind the back was a contributing factor to Zehm’s death.

Nicks and the department also failed to mention that a mask with a nickel-sized opening had been placed on Zehm to prevent him from spitting on officers.

Nicks acknowledges these “inaccuracies,” but on Thursday he couldn’t explain why he and others uttered them. The chief would have the public believe it was a mere coincidence that every “inaccuracy” and omission benefited the officers’ version of events.

Nicks only acknowledged his errors when the video was forced into the open. Even then, he was cavalier about when he was going to correct the record: “I’m telling you now,” he said to reporters.

Such a comment drips with contempt for public interest and demonstrates that he doesn’t understand the ramifications of this faulty account.

Earmarks of a coverup

But the wrongdoing doesn’t end there. In fact, this entire mess has all the earmarks of a coverup.

For instance, Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi, legal adviser for the Police Department, reinforced the tale that Nicks had accurately represented the video. In a June 21 letter he fired off to the Zehm family’s attorneys, he said there was nothing to retract from the May 30 news conference. Incredibly, he did this knowing that the attorneys had witnessed the video.

What’s more, the Zehm family’s attorneys could not publicly challenge this bit of fiction, because Treppiedi got them to sign secrecy agreements in exchange for the video and other information.

The public has not been served well with this legal strategy of secrecy and spin. Unfortunately, it’s a recurring Treppiedi tactic. City Hall ought to be embarrassed.

This is an ugly turn of events for the city, and it calls for decisive leadership and a credible response. Instead, Mayor Dennis Hession has praised Nicks as a “highly qualified officer” and says he has confidence in him. The only anger he has evinced was aimed at one of the attorneys for the Zehm family.

Apparently, he doesn’t mind the public being misled.

Instead, he chooses to dwell on the lawyerly point of Nicks’ intent and gives him the benefit of the doubt. Intent aside, Nicks and the department have conveyed egregious errors, which gave the public a false impression of key events. And remember, it was Nicks who originally chose not to punish the officers who mishandled evidence in the firehouse sex scandal.

Hession should recognize that Nicks has poisoned the credibility of the entire Police Department, which is unfair to the honest men and women who work there. The cloud will remain for as long as he does.

Need outside investigation

On Friday, the mayor said we must await the results of Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker’s investigation, which has dragged on for months. And he noted the participation of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, which is ostensibly conducting a shadow investigation. He said those entities could be counted on to produce an objective look at the case.

Even if they did, it wouldn’t be believed.

Prosecutors and the Sheriff’s Office work with the Police Department on a daily basis. That close relationship might explain why nobody from those organizations chose to correct the public misperception that Zehm was a bottle-wielding instigator. Plus, Tucker was responsible for locking up the video that would’ve busted faulty police claims.

Besides, his investigation only focuses on the officers at the scene. What about their bosses and the actions of the department afterward?

It’s simply too late to trust those who have known the truth to unearth the real story. An independent investigation from an outside entity is needed to assure the public of an objective result.

In the meantime, the public has a right to be suspicious of every action in this case – from the refusal to turn over information, to the unusual search warrant served on Zehm nine days after he died, to the city attorney office’s secrecy ploy, to the misleading description of the video, to the failure of anyone who saw the video, including the mayor, to correct the record.

Otto Zehm committed no crime on March 18, but he was suspected of one. As a result, he was beaten, Tasered, cinched up and kept in a dangerous position after an intense struggle. Two days later, he died.

The public deserves an honest, credible accounting of what happened that day – and ever since. The families of victims should not have to hire attorneys to pry loose the truth. The Spokesman-Review – or any media – should not have to threaten lawsuits to obtain video, reports and other public records.

Sadly, it would appear that institutional leaders are looking out for institutions instead.

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