No one knows yet what killed Otto Zehm, but acting Spokane Police Chief Jim Nicks insisted Thursday it wasn’t his officers.
“We cannot speculate on the actual cause of death; that is still being investigated by the medical examiner,” Nicks said at news conference. “However, at this time there is no indication that Mr. Zehm’s death is attributable to the force used by police officers.”
Zehm, a developmentally disabled janitor, was shocked by police with Taser probes during a scuffle Saturday at a North Division convenience store. The 35-year-old was rushed to a local hospital and pronounced dead Monday after being removed from life support machines.”We feel for the family,” Nicks said of Zehm’s death.
Although the confrontation with officers was captured by security cameras at the Zip Trip convenience store, Nicks is refusing to show the footage publicly, citing the ongoing investigation. Deputy Chief Al Odenthal explained it could taint witnesses who saw the incident but haven’t yet spoken with police. Police initially said they were called to the area Saturday night after receiving a report about a man behaving suspiciously at a cash machine. On Thursday, Nicks instead described the initial call as a report of an attempted or actual robbery.
Officer Karl Thompson responded and spotted Zehm outside a Zip Trip convenience store, but the man allegedly ran inside the store before the officer got out of his patrol car.
Thompson went into the Zip Trip but could not “obtain control of Mr. Zehm,” Nicks said. Officer Steven Braun Jr. then arrived, and still the officers were unable to gain control of Zehm. After five more officers arrived, they were able to put arm and leg restraints on him.
During the scuffle, officers used Taser probes twice and also used a police baton.
However, Nicks disputed reports that officers beat Zehm over the head with a baton. He also said no officers used a chokehold on the man.
“It appears at this time that all of the force used by the officers and each technique used were solely to obtain and maintain control of Mr. Zehm and place him in restraints,” Nicks said. “We had a lawful right to stop Mr. Zehm.”
Although the department is convinced the officers’ use of force had nothing to do with Zehm’s death, Nicks acknowledged that in rare cases some people have had fatal cardiac events anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour after exerting tremendous energy or being restrained. Zehm’s death, and progress of the police investigation, is being watched closely within Spokane’s mental health community.
The tragedy also comes at a time when Taser-related deaths are drawing greater scrutiny nationwide.
The Portland Police Bureau is in the midst of an investigation in which a man who was shocked twice with a Taser went into cardiac arrest and died a short time later, according to an Oregonian article printed Wednesday. In this case, the Taser was touched to the man’s skin.
Portland police have been cautioned that repeated or prolonged exposure to an electrical charge may cause strong muscle contractions and impede breathing and respiration, the Oregonian article said. In particular, they’ve been alerted to suspects who are in an “excited delirium” state and may be at a significant health risk from prolonged exertion or impaired breathing.
In November, the death of an autistic man after police shocked him with a Taser near Chicago sparked controversy over the use of the weapon, according to the Chicago Tribune. He also was shocked twice with a Taser.
Nicks said his police department’s policy regarding a Taser’s use is the same as with all non-lethal weapons that officers carry. The protocol is if the tool doesn’t work after two or three tries, move on to the next tool.