U.S. Marshals took convicted Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. into custody today after a federal judge ruled that his detention is appropriate pending sentencing for using excessive force on Otto Zehm and lying to cover it up.
Some four dozen Spokane Police officers and other supporters stood when someone yelled “Present Arms” and saluted Thompson as he was led away by U.S. Marshals without being handcuffed.
As the crowd saluted in unison, attorney Jeffry Finer turned and apologized to the family of Otto Zehm, who died after a violent confrontation with Thompson and other officers in a North Spokane convenience store in 2006. Finer is representing Zehm’s family in a companion civil suit.
“The salute was meant to be respectful,” Finer said. “But it seemed to be given with no thought of the victim’s family seated inches away.”
Hours later, Mayor Mary Verner and Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick apologized for the officers’ actions.
“We have acknowledged the pain that many of our officers feel as a result of the Thompson verdict, but it has been widely reported to us that the courtroom behavior of some officers, though protected as free speech, does not reflect the values we stand for,” the city’s statement read.
“It clearly was insensitive to the friends and family of Otto Zehm, and for that, we apologize. We had previously directed that officers could not be in the courtroom while on duty. Still, on duty or not, we expect our officers—because of their position in the community—to live up to a high professional standard.”
Kirkpatrick earlier had declined to address a reporter’s questions when approached at the Spokane County courthouse minutes after a jury awarded about $700,000 to a police detective who claimed Kirkpatrick wrongly fired him.
In the Thompson case, U.S. Magistrate Judge James Hutton, who was in Yakima but presided via video link, said he wasn’t persuaded that Thompson would be granted a new trial based on allegations by his defense attorney that the lawyer witnessed jurors watching TV reports of the trial while it was under way.
Thompson was convicted this week in connection with the March 18, 2006, confrontation inside the Zip Trip at 1712 N. Division St. After suffering multiple baton strikes and four Taser shocks, Zehm stopped breathing. He died two days later.
The courtroom in Spokane was packed with police officers, who all stood when Thompson entered the room. Several of them turned away, showing their backs as U.S. Marshals discussed with Thompson how he would be taken into custody.
The crowd included Detective Larry Bowman, Randy Lesser and Officer Terry Preuninger who all testified in support of Thompson. Preuninger left the courtroom with tears in his eyes and was among several people - including Thompson’s family - who were crying at the end of the hearing.
Preuninger respectfully declined to comment, saying it would not be appropriate because the civil case was still pending and because he was a witness in the criminal case.
Finer said the show of support indicates that Spokane has a long way to go before law enforcement understands the perspective of the victim’s family.
“They didn’t salute Otto. They didn’t grieve Otto,” Finer said. “As before, his voice and options have not been taken into account by a significant portion of our law enforcement. Healing starts with recognition.”
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