July 19, 2006 in City

Detective’s report finds force justified

Thomas Clouse Staff writer
 
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The lead detective investigating the fatal encounter between seven police officers and mentally ill janitor Otto Zehm concluded that the first officer on the scene was justified in striking Zehm with his police baton “to pre-empt an anticipated assault.”

Spokane Police Detective Terry Ferguson submitted her seven-page report on May 31 to Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker. But the analysis, which essentially blames the entire encounter on Zehm, wasn’t released until much later by the city.

In that review, Ferguson summarizes the evidence and concludes “there is no investigative finding of criminal activity on the part of the involved officers.”

Tucker, who last week said he expected to decide by this Friday whether to charge any of the officers involved, now is saying he’ll need until late next week. It was unclear Tuesday why Tucker needs the additional time, but he said he has yet to fully review video footage of the confrontation captured by security cameras inside the Zip Trip convenience store, 1712 N. Division St.

Tucker said his process will not be affected by Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession’s announcement Monday that he will seek an outside agency to investigate the Spokane Police Department’s handling of the Zehm case and an earlier encounter by a firefighter with a 16-year-old girl.

“I don’t look forward to the fallout,” Tucker said. “I hope I can explain whichever decision I make so people can understand where I am coming from.”

Meanwhile, under orders from Hession the Police Department no longer is responding to questions about its handling of the Zehm case, said Cpl. Tom Lee, the department’s chief spokesman.

In her final report, Ferguson described a downward spiral in which Zehm grew increasingly confused and eventually dropped out of communication with his employer as he attempted to wean himself from his prescribed medication. The documents reference a prescription for Zyprexa, a powerful drug used to treat schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

In February, work supervisors at Skils’kin noted that Zehm seemed distracted and disoriented, and that he expressed “nonsensical responses and verbal aggression,” the report said. In March, work staff temporarily discharged Zehm from his janitor job pending a medical evaluation, according to the report.

“The staff was very concerned for his welfare due to his high level of confusion and therefore tried to maintain contact with him,” Ferguson wrote in her May 31 report.

Ferguson then described her detailed interview with Officer Karl Thompson about his initial encounter with Zehm on March 18. Thompson responded to a call by two young women of suspicious activity at a nearby ATM that the women erroneously perceived as a possible theft or robbery.

Thompson told Ferguson he entered the store and immediately approached the man described by the women. He said Zehm had a 2-liter bottle of Pepsi in his hands, which were being held at chest level. The video of the event does not show Zehm holding anything at any time.

“The nature of this call and the subject’s clothing made this a heightened risk contact for Ofc. Thompson, therefore when he saw Zehm with a pop bottle and the look of defiance on his face, the risk increased,” Ferguson wrote. “Thompson believed Zehm was going to strike him with the bottle.

“Thompson quickly considered his force options and decided to apply a baton strike to pre-empt an anticipated assault by Zehm.”

She documented Thompson’s descriptions of how Zehm punched him in the chest a number of times with both fists and how Thompson fired his Taser to no effect. Six more officers eventually arrived and subdued Zehm by binding his ankles to his wrists with nylon straps.

“It is noted that Zehm was lying on his back during most of the altercation with these officers,” Ferguson wrote.

Once hogtied, Spokane Fire Department paramedics were called to the scene to remove Taser probes from Zehm.

“The SFD medics were not able to check Zehm’s vital signs due to his violent thrashing about,” Ferguson wrote.

According to the files, a plastic mask, which had a single breathing hole about the size of a dime where an oxygen tube is designed to be attached, was placed over Zehm’s mouth and nose, but was not kept as evidence. Ferguson called a forensic specialist, who found the mask had been thrown inside a trash bin for bio-hazardous material that had not yet been emptied April 6.

Despite her successful efforts to preserve the mask, Ferguson did not mention in her report to Tucker that Zehm was wearing the mask when he stopped breathing.

“There is no evidence of criminal negligence reference responding to Zehm’s medical needs,” Ferguson wrote.

Gordon Bopp is president of NAMI-Washington, a statewide advocacy group for people with mental illness. He reviewed the surveillance tape and saw nothing aggressive from Zehm that was described by Thompson.

“It really underscores to me the very aggressive approach of the officer,” Bopp said. “To deal with citizens like this is a travesty.”


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