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Spokane leaders stick by accused officer

MONDAY, JUNE 22, 2009, 10:11 P.M.

Spokane leaders on Monday continued to defend police actions during the 2006 confrontation with Otto Zehm, despite a federal indictment of one of the officers involved in the incident.

But they also are qualifying their support by noting that they aren’t privy to the evidence shared with a federal grand jury.

“Based on the information we have, we’ve been supportive of not only police officers but the firefighters and the other city employees involved in that incident,” City Administrator Ted Danek said Monday afternoon.

At a news conference Monday, U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt announced that a grand jury indicted Karl Thompson, the officer who first responded to a complaint about Zehm. He faces a federal charge of depriving Zehm of his civil rights and a charge of providing false information in a report.

“I don’t believe that Karl acted to willingly deprive Mr. Zehm of his constitutional rights,” City Attorney Howard Delaney said.

He added, “I have not necessarily seen everything that the grand jury has.”

While calling the incident “a tragedy,” Spokane Mayor Mary Verner has defended police actions.

“In my personal opinion … I just don’t think that the behavior of the officer rose to criminal behavior,” Verner said in February.

On Monday, she noted that she wasn’t briefed by federal authorities on their evidence.

“It’s the latest step in a process that has been unfolding for a couple of years now,” Verner said. “Like the rest of the public I’ll be watching the evidence unfold in the court system.”

Many City Council members declined comment on Monday’s developments.

“We’ll have to let the process play out,” said Councilman Mike Allen.

City Councilman Richard Rush attended McDevitt’s news conference. He declined to comment on the indictment, but he said he went to get a firsthand account of the charges “sans any filters” from city officials.

The city faces a lawsuit from the Center for Justice on behalf of Zehm’s family. Last week, the

city sent its response to the lawsuit to local media; it claims that Zehm was at fault for the confrontation

with police.

Councilman Bob Apple criticized the city’s defense posture, which he described as an “attitude of, basically, ‘We’re not responsible and this life isn’t worth anything.’”

Verner responded that the city negotiated in good faith to avoid a lawsuit.

“We did offer a reasonable settlement to the plaintiffs in the civil matter,” Verner said. “When the settlement negotiations broke down, it became our responsibility to vigorously defend the city and the rest of the taxpayers.”

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