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New view of Thompson brings mixed emotions

Karl Thompson looked like a whole new man.

When he walked into the federal courtroom Monday, he wore yellow jailhouse garb – the blousy top a shade darker than the loose pants. Big black letters on the back read: BONNER COUNTY. On his bare feet were cheap plastic sandals. Gray scruff stood out on his chin, and his usually neat white hair was very slightly disheveled. His hands – the hands that had placed countless criminal suspects into cuffs over his career as a cop – were locked behind his back.

He looked smaller, sadder, diminished.

“I wasn’t prepared for that,” said one of his supporters.

Neither was I. Nor was I prepared to look at Thompson and feel what I felt: sympathy. It’s a sympathy tempered by anger at what he did to Otto Zehm and the city’s long string of mistakes in the case. Still, that’s what it was – sympathy for the utter disintegration of his life and for the people who love him and who are distraught over his convictions for using excessive force and lying to investigators.

They see Thompson as a wrongly convicted hero, of course, and the ferocity of their loyalty is alienating a whole lot of us in the community. Last week’s courtroom salute to Thompson by dozens of SPD officers, right in front of his victim’s family, was just the latest exhibition by a police rank-and-file that seems determined to incinerate any and all good will from citizens.

For more than five years now, the message from the cops has been clear: If you think what happened in that Zip Trip was wrong, you simply don’t get it. You don’t understand life on the mean streets. Not if you’re a federal prosecutor. Not if you’re a use-of-force expert with the state. Not if you’re the assistant chief of police. Certainly not if you’re a regular Spokane citizen. Not even if you’re a Yakima juror, exposed to the best argument Thompson’s lawyers could muster and beyond the reach of the big, bad Spokane media.

This is so infuriating, this refusal to admit even the possibility of error. The refusal to admit the humanity of the situation – not just that split-second decisions must be made, but that split-second decisions are sometimes wrong. But no one among the defenders of Thompson even allows for that possibility. Instead, we hear that split-second decisions must be made, police risk their lives every day and therefore no one has the right to question them in any way whatsoever.

One officer posted a comment on the We Support Karl Thompson Facebook page after the jury verdicts: The officer was struggling, he said, to figure out how in the world he was going to drag himself to work, given that he no longer felt the community’s support.

I wanted to write to this officer myself and suggest an alternative: Don’t do us any favors. Just quit. I’ll bet we can find a replacement who is less dedicated to insisting that Karl Thompson got it right when he so clearly got it wrong.

It has gotten very difficult to feel appreciative of the difficult, dangerous job that police do in this city, and that’s not good for anybody. The whole case, and especially the city’s dogged insistence that Zehm was to blame, has produced an atmosphere of absolutes, in which we are presented with a false choice regarding Thompson: Hero or monster?

The sight of Thompson in that yellow jail suit – a 64-year-old man, unshaven, stoic, with bare forearms and bare feet in a room full of suits – was a simple, powerful announcement that he is neither.

He is a man. He is a criminal whose sentence will bring real pain to him and to those who love him. No matter how much he deserves it, and no matter how lousy his supporters are at expressing it.

Being jailed is a dehumanizing, life-altering experience. It’s heartbreaking for family members and friends. It turns lives upside down, and the effects do not disappear. I know it because I’ve worn those jail clothes myself, for a night, and because I have seen my father in those clothes. It’s cast a long shadow in my life. I understand being loyal beyond the point of wisdom.

When it happened to me, I deserved it. I’d driven with a suspended driver’s license for not having car insurance – part of an overall program of irresponsibility I pursued with a vengeance for some years. When it happened to my father, he deserved it. He forged checks. And when Thompson is sentenced, he will deserve it. He should pay a penalty for what he did to Otto Zehm and what he said about what he did to Otto Zehm, and the city and the Police Department must do more than simply pretend that one court case – or two – will resolve all the questions and put this to rest.

But that punishment will be painful, no matter how well-deserved, and we do ourselves no good if we immunize ourselves against understanding that by declaring devils and saints, heroes and monsters – easy categories that allow us to ignore the real human mess.

Karl Thompson isn’t a monster. There are no monsters. He’s just a man.

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