The conviction of Officer Karl Thompson could mean a significant shift in the running and politics of the Spokane Police Department, some city officials and police accountability advocates said after Wednesday’s verdict.
Jeffry Finer, a civil rights attorney who represents the family of Otto Zehm, said he hopes the jury’s decision would lead to serious police reform after years of failed efforts.
“It takes a conviction to change a culture,” Finer said. “This is the best opportunity I’ve ever seen.”
City leaders said they respected the verdict, even though City Hall officially has backed Thompson’s flawed version of events, and some said they expected it to force changes within the department.
“The police should realize that we’re going to have to change our policies in Spokane, and I hope that we do,” said Councilman Bob Apple. “I hope that the public will work with the city to clean up the practices and procedures that have been employed.”
Councilman Richard Rush said the outcome is another sign that the city must push for a police ombudsman with the authority to investigate police misconduct independently.
“It absolutely points out that we have the need for that independent oversight to address best practices,” he said.
Mayor Mary Verner promised a full review of how the city handled legal cases surrounding the fatal confrontation. Federal prosecutors have accused city attorneys of caring more about shielding the city from liability than pursuing the truth.
“This tragedy has torn us apart,” Verner said. “As we reach closure I hope that we’ll think first and foremost of the people whose lives were changed on that day in 2006 and that we will rally together as a community.”
After the verdict, Verner announced that Earl F. Martin, former dean of Gonzaga University Law School, will lead an independent review panel. The group won’t start work until after the lawsuit filed by the Zehm estate is resolved. The panel’s review is expected to take about six months. Beyond that, the specifics are still under consideration.
Thompson’s trial revealed a significant gulf between what the state’s top police tactics expert considers an appropriate use of force and what the department’s own training officers teach.
Those discrepancies will be reviewed, said Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick.
“Right now, we’re just all trying to receive and deal with the verdict,” she said. “A lot of the questions you have will be questions that we will cross when we can regroup.”
Verner said many training policies already have been reformed by Kirkpatrick.
“It’s not the same police department today as it was in 2006,” said Verner, who noted that Zehm’s death occurred before she became mayor and Kirkpatrick became chief. She added that training likely will be considered by the review panel.
Breean Beggs, who along with Finer represents the Zehm family, said it would be a big step if it turns out that the city already has changed training policies in a way that would have prevented a confrontation like the one that resulted in Zehm’s death. But Beggs said he is unaware of such a change and noted it was only last week that Officer Terry Preuninger testified that Thompson responded properly.
“And he didn’t qualify that by saying, ‘That was under the old policy.’ ”
Before the civil lawsuit was put on hold in the fall of 2009, the city vigorously defended Thompson, even telling Zehm’s family in 2009 that Thompson violated no police procedures and that Zehm was responsible for his own death. At the time, however, Assistant Chief Jim Nicks already had told federal investigators that he believed otherwise.
Kirkpatrick earned a reputation among political leaders as a reformer who held officers to higher standards. In February 2009, Verner and Kirkpatrick said in interviews that based on what they knew of the case Thompson hadn’t violated the law. Kirkpatrick said Thompson had her “unequivocal support.”
In August of this year, however, the prosecution filed a sworn statement from Nicks that said he believed Thompson violated the department’s policies and procedures in the Zehm confrontation. That same statement originally said Kirkpatrick “concurs with the assessment that unnecessary and unreasonable force” was used by Thompson. But that statement later was removed.
Kirkpatrick said Wednesday her assessment was cut from Nicks’ statement because she is not a use-of-force expert.
She declined to give her assessment of Thompson’s actions because “it does not lead us to healing.” When pressed, she noted that Nicks changed his opinion when learning more information about the case.
“Investigations are for getting the truth, and information that you may not have had here, but you get … later in an investigation, people of integrity will stand up and say, ‘Hey, I have to change my position,’ ” Kirkpatrick said. “And isn’t that what we want?”