Nearly 50 Spokane police officers saluted convicted Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. in federal court as U.S. marshals led him away Friday, prompting Mayor Mary Verner and police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick to apologize for their actions.
A Yakima jury Wednesday convicted Thompson of using excessive force and lying to cover up his attack on 36-year-old Otto Zehm in 2006. On Friday, U.S. Magistrate Judge James Hutton ruled that Thompson must immediately be detained despite arguments by defense attorney Carl Oreskovich that he will seek a new trial for alleged juror misconduct.
Some four dozen Spokane police officers and other supporters stood while someone yelled, “Present arms.” The crowd then saluted Thompson; he smiled at the gesture and walked out, flanked by U.S. marshals, who had not placed him in handcuffs.
After the salute, attorney Jeffry Finer turned and apologized to Zehm’s family; the mentally ill janitor 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 civil lawsuit.
“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, Verner and Kirkpatrick issued a written apology.
“The courtroom behavior of some officers, though protected as free speech, does not reflect the values we stand for,” the city’s statement read in part. “It clearly was insensitive to the friends and family of Otto Zehm, and for that, we apologize.”
Kirkpatrick later said she had warned officers that they could not attend the hearing while on duty. She has directed the city’s human resources director to check for violations of that directive.
“They were showing their honor and support of Karl. The disconnect is that the community is thinking that this officer has been convicted by his peers. Why aren’t (Thompson’s fellow officers) accepting it? I do think that this community needs a reset button here,” Kirkpatrick said. “We as a Police Department need to be unified and show that we share the values of this community. And the community needs to believe the Police Department is reflecting their values.”
Meanwhile, Oreskovich – Thompson’s publicly funded defense attorney – filed motions Friday asking U.S. District Judge Fred Van Sickle to immediately revoke Thompson’s detention. He also requested a hearing Monday to ask Van Sickle to look into allegations of juror misconduct.
Van Sickle has not set a sentencing date for Thompson, 64. Federal prosecutors initially said they would seek six to eight years in prison. But Hutton, the magistrate, indicated that the recommendation would be eight to 10 years for Thompson’s role in the March 18, 2006, confrontation inside the Zip Trip at 1712 N. Division St.
On Friday, so many people filled the courtroom in Spokane that about two dozen spectators had to stand. When Thompson entered, all seated police officers stood. Later, several officers – none of them in uniform – turned, showing their backs as U.S. marshals discussed with Thompson how he would be taken into custody.
The crowd included police officers Larry Bowman, Randy Lesser and Terry Preuninger, all of whom testified in support of Thompson at his trial. Preuninger was among several people – including Thompson’s family members – who were crying at the end of the hearing.
Preuninger declined to comment, saying it would not be appropriate because the civil case is 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.”
Vincent Reagor, 82, a retired federal and state prosecutor from California, was prompted by coverage of the case to call The Spokesman-Review. He said the attitude of Spokane police officers keeps him from venturing into the city from his home in Nine Mile Falls.
“They’ve pumped their arms when other cases went their way,” Reagor said. “I think they are a joke, but not a funny joke. I think they are a dangerous joke. Their attitude seems to be that they believe they are above the law.”
Kirkpatrick said she understood reactions like Reagor’s from the community. “Was it insensitive to the Zehm family? Sure,” Kirkpatrick said of the salute. “Was it actionable? No.”
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