July 2, 2009 in City

Officer given desk duty while awaiting trial

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

A federal grand jury has indicted Spokane Police Officer Karl Thompson, the first officer who responded to the confrontation that resulted in Otto Zehm’s death and sparked a cry for citizen police oversight.
(Full-size photo)

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The Spokane police officer facing federal charges in connection with the 2006 death of Otto Zehm will remain on the city’s payroll but has been reassigned to desk duty while awaiting trial.

The move, announced Thursday by City Administrator Ted Danek, comes two weeks after a federal grand jury indicted Officer Karl Thompson for using unreasonable force and lying to prosecutors in connection to the confrontation with Zehm on March 18, 2006.

Zehm, a 36-year-old mentally ill janitor wrongly accused of robbery, died two days after Thompson and six other officers responded to a Zip Trip convenience store on North Division. Video surveillance cameras showed that Thompson immediately engaged Zehm and began striking him with a baton. Thompson also shocked Zehm with a Taser during a struggle that included several other officers. Officers then hogtied Zehm and placed a plastic mask over his face before he stopped breathing.After the federal charges were filed June 19, a three-member committee – including one employee from the city’s Human Resources Department, one from the Police Department and one from the police union – reviewed the charges and recommended changing Thompson’s duties, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist said in a news release. Thompson will be moved out of the department’s patrol division and placed into a civilian police planning and analysis position.

Danek will monitor the job placement as the criminal case against Thompson proceeds and will respond appropriately if new information comes to light, Feist said. The new assignment will allow the department to use Thompson’s experience and training, Feist said.

But Liz Moore, director of the Peace and Justice Action League, said paying Thompson during the criminal proceeding is “repugnant and incredibly disappointing.”

“It’s really outrageous.” Moore said. “But I actually think it’s consistent with the outrageousness of the city’s response to the civil lawsuit saying Otto is responsible for his own death.”

The city faces tough choices in deciding whether to move officers into unpaid leave status.

In two recent cases, for example, the city ended up on the hook for thousands of dollars worth of back pay when two officers facing criminal charges in unrelated cases were acquitted at trial.

Carl Oreskovich, who is representing Thompson in both the federal civil suit and criminal case related to the Zehm incident, could not be reached Thursday night for comment.

Moore, whose organization has pushed city leaders to create a police ombudsman with independent investigative powers, said the Thompson decision was a perfect opportunity for city leaders to restore community trust regarding police actions.

“And I think this is the wrong choice,” Moore said. “Police officers who do their jobs well are unfairly punished by the actions of their co-workers when city leadership makes this kind of decision, where it appears they are closing ranks at all costs.”


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