November 4, 2011 in Opinion

Editorial: Zehm case shows need for reforms, credibility

 

And so it’s over, but it really isn’t.

Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. has been found guilty of using excessive force, and lying to cover it up. As this chapter in the tragic case of Otto Zehm closes, another one opens.

The citizens of Spokane deserve credit for keeping the memory of Zehm alive, and demanding accountability. Federal prosecutors deserve credit for pursuing a law enforcement officer, and seeing to it that justice was served.

In the verdict’s aftermath, the community must deal with the profound distrust caused by institutions driven more by self-protection than truth and justice. It wasn’t Zehm who adopted an ill-advised fighting stance; it was elements within the Police Department, with the aid of an impetuous city attorney’s office.

At present, citizens cannot fully trust the local criminal justice system, because they know that without the threat of lawsuits, they would not have seen the video. Without the video, there would’ve been no prosecution. Without the prosecution, the official story would’ve remained a lie.

Thompson and his enablers have suggested that the mistakes were honest ones, but it’s more than coincidence that all of the errors just happened to help his cause. Zehm did not lunge at Thompson. He did not have a history of battling police officers. He did not adopt a boxing stance. He was struck in the head. Nonetheless, the detective reviewing the incident determined there was no excessive force, but failed to include critical details in her report.

At the trial, key officers recanted or softened the more damaging testimony they told to a grand jury.

This pattern of dissembling, delaying and covering up has crippled the credibility of law enforcement and made the job of honest officers more difficult.

With the criminal verdict rendered, we now turn to the civil case. And the city’s official position – it was all Zehm’s fault – has just been torpedoed. It was an overzealous legal strategy to begin with, but typical of the work of Assistant City Attorney Rocco Treppiedi. The city needs to settle the civil suit honorably as soon as possible, and reconsider Treppiedi’s status. He is a hindrance to healing.

Jim Nicks, who was the acting police chief at the time, is leaving soon; so is police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, who arrived after the incident. She tried to change the culture of the Police Department, but too many officers dug in and waited her out. In retrospect, it was probably unwise to hire someone who made it clear she’d be leaving in five years.

The next chief must be here for the long haul, and must be committed to reforms. At the top of the list is independent investigatory powers for the police ombudsman. Support for that ought to be a condition of employment.

Mayor Mary Verner, if re-elected, needs to go beyond the new-age rhetoric of “closure.” That will not occur without taking decisive steps. If David Condon is the mayor, he must show that lessons have been learned. Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker, who was conspicuous by his absence throughout, needs to become actively engaged in controversial cases.

Thompson is no longer on trial. But the jury is still out on law enforcement reform.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.


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