August 10, 2011 in City

Shawn Vestal: Truth about Zehm sure took a while

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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It took just five years, 20 weeks and a day.

But finally we’re hearing the truth about Otto Zehm from Jim Nicks.

In a statement filed Friday in the federal case against Officer Karl Thompson, Nicks – who was the acting chief when Thompson and other officers confronted, beat, Tasered and hog-tied Zehm at a Zip Trip on March 18, 2006 – says Thompson’s account of the confrontation is factually wrong, his actions were improper and the subsequent police investigation of the incident was insufficient.

Nicks, stunningly, notes that there are a lot of “glaring inconsistencies” between the statements of Karl Thompson and the evidence.

He didn’t have much to say about the glaring inconsistencies between the statements of Jim Nicks and the statements of Jim Nicks.

The night Zehm went on his ill-fated shopping trip for candy and pop, Nicks rushed to the scene. So did City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi. Such was their dedication to the truth that they came out to a crime scene on a Saturday night, to get right to the bottom of things.

Which they very, very quickly did.

I happened to be on the weekend cops shift that Saturday night. I was at the convenience store, outside the crime-scene tape, trying to get a little information before a fast-approaching deadline. Nicks eventually came out and declared that the officers involved had followed all the department’s policies. And – hey, no contradiction here – he assured citizens that there would be a full investigation.

Even then – before Zehm had died, before much of anything was known about what happened – it was obviously a truth-challenged statement. Jim Nicks may not have known then what he knows now. But he did not know what he said, either.

As has become obvious.

“The officers were definitely within the (department) policy,” he said that night. “The officers used the lowest level of force possible.”

A few months later, Nicks said, “Karl had a lawful right to use the amount of force necessary to gain control of the suspect with the belief that Officer Thompson was about to be pushed, hit or charged. With that in mind, Thompson was within policy and training to use a nightstick and Taser in the manner which he did.”

Between then and now, Nicks has made a slow, gradual journey toward the light, apparently – while sticking up for Thompson and retailing obvious whoppers, such as Zehm’s fictional “lunge” toward Thompson, a tale that was first told that Saturday night outside the Zip Trip.

But then, sometime before Thompson’s June 19, 2009, federal indictment, Nicks apparently managed to take a peek at the store’s videotape. He testified to the contradictions in Thompson’s testimony before a grand jury. In June 2010, he approached Thompson’s defense team and told them about his concerns. On Friday, his statement was filed in federal court.

Better late than never, I guess. The thing is, all this truth-telling remained under wraps while the city continued to play hardball and cover its butt and blame Zehm and issue no-comments. But back when all Nicks had to spread was B.S., nobody seemed to mind.

If you’ve followed the case, reading Nicks’ current statement is breathtaking. Nicks says Zehm did not assault Thompson, lunge at him or try to punch him – Zehm was “retreating” and “non-assaultive.” Nicks now says Thompson should not have Tasered Zehm, or gone after him as quickly as he did with a baton – literally within a couple seconds. Thompson should not have used “vertical” blows to Zehm’s head.

Thompson, Nicks says, said a lot of things that are simply not supported by the evidence, and he points them out one by one. In particular, he notes time and again that Thompson’s testimony contradicts the store’s security video.

Which has only been available to police since … the night of the fight.

Five years, 20 weeks and one day. That’s how long it took for the acting police chief’s truthful account to emerge.

Nicks’ statement includes several eye-openers. When the cops interviewed Thompson about what happened, they gave him a nice, long, off-the-record interview, followed by a lunch break, followed by an on-the-record interview. Which they later allowed him the opportunity to correct.

Then there was this gem: “The SPD Major Crimes Unit also failed to perform a side-by-side analysis and comparison of Officer Thompson’s recorded statement against the objectively recorded Zip Trip store security video.”

And this: “Thompson’s immediate baton strikes to the retreating, non-assaultive Zehm did not serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose … and no reasonable officer would have perceived Zehm’s response to Officer Thompson’s presence as assaultive.”

Well … duh. All it took was an inside investigation, an outside investigation, a lawsuit, public pressure to hire a police ombudsman, an FBI investigation, five years, 20 weeks and one day to drag the truth out into the light.

Nicks is second in command of the Spokane Police Department. First is Anne Kirkpatrick. She likes to talk about the importance of telling the truth. Her supposedly cardinal rule: “If you lie, you die.”

What happened to Otto Zehm in the Zip Trip was appalling. The failures of honesty, accountability and good faith that followed are despicable.

Nicks’ long, strange trip to the truth only makes that more obvious.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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