The good news is that the decision on whether to file criminal charges against police officers in the Otto Zehm case has been postponed. The bad news is that this is the good news.
It’s mind-boggling that a prosecutor who took so long had to be told, “Not so fast.”
On March 18, Zehm entered a convenience store to buy a bottle of Pepsi and a Snickers. He left in an ambulance after a lengthy struggle with police officers. Later, he died as a result of that encounter. What’s happened since has driven public confidence in Spokane County’s law and order institutions to such a low level that it was a relief to learn that the case will rest on an investigation by the FBI, which has turned up new evidence.
Normally, a community would loudly jeer the news that such a case could take up to a year to resolve. But Spokane left normal long ago.
For four months, the Spokane Police Department maintained a false account of Zehm’s actions, saying that he lunged at the first officer. It said Zehm was placed on his side “all” or “a majority” of the time after being hogtied. The department and Spokane County prosecutor then played hot potato with a security video that would expose those tales. To this day, the public has a right to wonder whether that false portrayal would be the official story if not for the video and legal actions that forced it into the open.
What’s more, authorities never mentioned the mask placed on Zehm shortly before he stopped breathing until a reporter asked. The mask didn’t make it into the department’s report recommending that no criminal charges be brought. It wasn’t mentioned by Medical Examiner Sally Aiken, who later declared that the mask was not a factor in Zehm’s death. To help her with that determination, the same masks were tested on people using treadmills. But Zehm wasn’t working out. He was a heavy-set man who was tightly bound and placed on his stomach after a lengthy struggle with seven police officers.
After the video was released and the public erupted with anger, Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker began announcing his ever-shifting deadlines for making a decision. Incredibly, he said on July 18 – four months after the incident – that he had yet to fully view the video. He almost topped that admission this week when he said he learned only two weeks ago that the FBI was conducting an investigation. Mayor Dennis Hession disclosed that fact in a press conference on July 17.
Because of this appalling timeline of detachment, secrecy, falsehoods and inaction, the community is now relieved to learn that an outside entity is on the case, even if it means that resolution on the question of criminality is still months away.
But what does this say about the long-term prospects for probes into possible police misconduct? Tucker said on Tuesday, “It’s tough to investigate your own people.” No doubt, but that didn’t become true this week. An independent investigation was needed from the start. That should’ve been glaringly obvious.
Communities across the nation have found credible ways to conduct probes into their law enforcement officers and hold them accountable when necessary. That hasn’t been a priority here, but it needs to be now. Our leaders must come to a common understanding of this need and then devise clear, straightforward protocols to restore the public’s trust.
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