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Deaths of disabled discussed

Fri., June 22, 2007

Civil rights advocates sat down with Spokane County’s highest-ranking law enforcement officials Wednesday night to discuss recent fatal confrontations between police and persons with disabilities.

The public forum at Gonzaga Law School, sponsored by the Washington state Human Rights Commission, came at a crucial time, Mayor Dennis Hession said, as Spokane faces the imminent loss of three downtown facilities housing persons with mental illness.

The loss of this housing, he said, will result in more problems for law enforcement.

“Are we handling the issue of mental health in this state?” Hession asked. “We are not.”

Questions from several people in the crowd of about 60 focused on two deaths in police custody– Otto Zehm and Trent Yohe.

Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick took issue with the assertion that Zehm, a mentally disabled man, was “Tasered to death.” Zehm died of asphyxiation after being beaten, tied and Tasered by police, according to the medical examiner.

A medical examiner’s report has not been released on the death of Yohe, a methamphetamine addict with epilepsy.

Kirkpatrick and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said their officers and deputies have undergone specialized training in crisis intervention, including how to handle persons with “excited delirium,” a condition investigators believe Zehm was experiencing during his encounter with police.

As a result of the two deaths, disabled people and others are afraid to leave their homes, said Shelly Mitchell, a board member of the Coalition for Responsible Disabled. As she spoke, a man in the audience held up a photograph of Yohe.

Breean Beggs, who heads the Center for Justice, which represents Zehm’s family, said as tragic as Zehm’s death was, “it has resulted in many good things.” Among them, he said, are specialized training for law enforcement, a proposed office of independent oversight and review of local law enforcement’s philosophy of use of force.

“We continue to look forward to positive changes,” Beggs said.

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