About two dozen friends and co-workers of Otto Zehm, who died after struggling with police March 18, remembered him Monday as a “gentle lion.”
Spokane police say officers shocked the 35-year-old, mentally disabled janitor twice with a Taser stun gun and struck him with a nightstick when they attempted to question him and he resisted violently.
Zehm went into a coma and died two days later.
“The police cornered a gentle lion, and now they will be afraid of his roar,” said one of Zehm’s co-workers, Spokane resident Kathleen Paris.
She and others who gathered at the southwest corner of Riverfront Park, across Post Street from City Hall, shouted out a “roar” for Zehm.
Paris, who works as a groundskeeper at Fairchild Air Force Base, where Zehm did custodial work through the Skils’kin employment service for workers with disabilities, said she doesn’t oppose use of Tasers but thinks tighter regulations are needed.
“We’ve got to get some appropriate regulations that will be humane,” Paris said. “It’s kind of violating our civil rights by (giving the public) no expectations of any limits by the police.”
Cpl. Tom Lee, the Spokane Police Department spokesman, said Monday that officers quit using their Tasers when, after two attempts, the weapons proved ineffective.
Chris Hoogstad, another Skils’kin worker and the vigil organizer, said Zehm had “a golden heart” and everyone who knew Zehm described him as “gentle.”
Hoogstad said he thought a convenience store security video of Zehm’s confrontation with police may show that officers used excessive force. He called for public release of the video and an “independent” investigation. An investigation being conducted by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office isn’t independent enough, he said.
Twenty people at the vigil signed a petition calling for a new investigation.
“Today we stand here to demand the truth and to let people know that we will not allow this to be swept under the rug,” Hoogstad said. “This could happen to any one of us.”
“They still won’t release the tape?” Spokane resident Mary Ann Tripp asked. “What is their excuse?”
Lee said the Police Department “was all set to release the video to the public, but the prosecutor asked us not to do so because it was evidence.”
Police have no objection to release of the video when the prosecutor’s office agrees, nor do they object to a civilian investigation of the Zehm incident, Lee said.
He said the department’s position, as stated by acting Chief Jim Nicks, is that the officers’ actions were “justifiable and within our policies and procedures.”
Police have said Zehm fought violently when an officer, responding to a tip about a possible robbery, attempted to question him at the Zip Trip store at 1712 N. Division St. Zehm had no criminal record, but a witness thought his behavior was suspicious.
Carrole Brathovd, a former co-worker of Zehm’s, remembered him as “a wonderful man.” “He was proud of his work, and he had a nice smile,” she said. “That’s what I remember about him. And I liked his red hair. It just glowed.”
A poster pinned to a tree with blue-and-white “Otto” buttons said Zehm, a guitar player, “will always sing in our hearts.”