March 31, 2006 in City

Video of scuffle kept secret

Thomas Clouse Staff writer
 
The Spokesman-Review photo

Zehm
(Full-size photo)

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Security camera footage of a scuffle between police and a developmentally disabled janitor who died two days later will remain hidden from the public under orders from Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker.

Spokane police spokesman Cpl. Tom Lee said the department was prepared to release the video from security cameras in the Zip Trip at Division Street and Augusta Avenue, but Tucker put the brakes on the plan.

Tucker, who is up for re-election later this year, did not return two messages seeking explanation for the move. But Chief Deputy Prosecutor Jack Driscoll said Tucker’s decision basically came down to procedures over evidence.

“We have a different focus” than police officials, Driscoll said. “This is clearly evidence at this point that can’t be released to the public domain.

“If there were to be criminal charges, we can’t taint any defendant’s right to a fair trial.” Driscoll continued. “And we can’t taint any potential juror pool until all those decisions have been made.”

The video is expected to show what happened inside the Zip Trip convenience store when Officer Karl Thompson approached 36-year-old Otto Zehm on March 18.

Police officials initially said Thompson was responding to a call of a man behaving strangely near a cash machine at Division and Augusta. But last week, they said the call was actually a report of an attempted or actual robbery.

When Thompson entered the store, Lee and Acting Police Chief Jim Nicks said Zehm “lunged” and “attacked” Thompson, who was unable to gain control.

Officer Steven Braun Jr. – who is the son of Lt. Steve Braun – arrived, but the two officers were unable to control Zehm.

Five more officers joined the scuffle and twice shocked Zehm with Taser probes and used a police baton to finally bind him in arm and leg restraints. Nicks later said all steps taken during the scuffle were “lawful” procedures to maintain control.

About 10 minutes after detaining Zehm, who was unarmed and did not have a criminal record, the janitor began to have trouble breathing.

He was transported to a local hospital where he died two days later.

One reported witness told a television crew from KXLY that police beat Zehm as he tried “to protect his face.”

Nicks has previously said that investigators found no evidence to suggest that Zehm’s death was a result of the force used by police.

Earlier this week, officials with Washington’s largest mental-health advocacy group called for police officials to release the tape from the Zip Trip security camera.

“We were tentatively planning to release it,” Lee said. “Now the prosecutor stepped in and said, ‘Wait a minute.’”

If the tape is released, officials would wait until after the completion of laboratory tests seeking to determine why Zehm died. Those test results are not expected for another six to seven weeks, Lee said.

Driscoll said the video would be key if any of the police officers face criminal charges.

“Because of pre-trial publicity, it’s just not proper to release evidence,” he said.

Nicks, in a press release, concurred.

“We can certainly understand the public’s wanting to have access to the tape,” Nicks said. “However, in the long run it is more important that a complete investigation be done.”

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