The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office apparently couldn’t provide the “independent” review that Mayor Dennis Hession now believes is necessary to oversee the investigation into the death of Otto Zehm.
The city initiated the “Officer Involved Fatality Protocol” on March 18, when the 36-year-old mentally ill janitor had a confrontation with Spokane police inside the Zip Trip at 1712 N. Division.
Zehm stopped breathing while hogtied on his stomach and never regained consciousness. He died two days later at Deaconess Medical Center.
The protocol calls for pairing detectives from the Sheriff’s Office and Police Department to investigate the incident. Detectives from both agencies can either be present for interviews or later read reports generated by the Police Department, said sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Dave Reagan.
“In theory, having a side-by-side investigation by an outside agency protects the integrity of the investigation,” Reagan said. “It’s designed to protect the public confidence.”
But Hession announced Monday that he wants some other agency to review the Zehm case and police response to an earlier sexual encounter between a 16-year-old girl and a Spokane firefighter.
Hession said he was not questioning the credibility of the sheriff’s investigation: “My concern is that the citizens have concerns about the credibility of the institution as questions are raised about what occurred in those investigations.”
Reagan said he had no response to Hession’s decision to seek another agency to review the case.
“This sounds like an internal matter between the mayor and the Police Department,” Reagan said. “If they want to call for an independent investigation to review the case, that’s their prerogative.”
The protocol has been used in all recent cases where someone has died at the hands of law enforcement, including the Jan. 29 death of 39-year-old Benites S. Sichiroafter a violent encounter with Spokane County corrections deputies.
Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker has yet to decide whether to file charges against the officers involved in either the Sichiro or Zehm cases.
In hundreds of pages of investigative files released Friday on the Zehm case, the vast majority were generated by Spokane police investigators and lead detective Terry Ferguson.
Several county detectives were mentioned, and they also generated reports.
But the final report advising Tucker on whether to charge the officers was prepared by Ferguson, Reagan said. Even though it is practice to have a county detective review that final document, the file does not show any initials indicating that any county detective reviewed it, Reagan said.
“The second agency is brought in … to assure the community that they get an unbiased look at what occurred,” he said.
Asked how a county detective can remain unbiased while investigating a city officer the detective may have worked with in the past, Reagan replied: “I’m telling you we just are. We go to court and testify that we are telling the truth and we tell the truth.”