YAKIMA – Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. finished his second day of testimony Friday, acknowledging again that he made some errors in his taped statement describing the 2006 incident that resulted in the death of Otto Zehm, but that he did not intend to lie.
Meanwhile, another expert witness testified that Thompson used “poor” judgment when he rushed at Zehm in a north Spokane convenience store and began striking him without a legitimate law enforcement purpose.
Thompson also revealed that other officers kept him updated during the investigation of the incident, including autopsy findings.
The trial will continue Monday with two or three witnesses before attorneys are expected to give closing arguments and send the case to jurors. Thompson is charged with using unreasonable force and lying to investigators about the March 18, 2006, encounter with Zehm, who died two days later.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Durkin pressed Thompson about apparent discrepancies between what he said happened and the convenience store’s surveillance video, which showed none of the “aggressive” actions that Thompson said he relied upon to start striking Zehm with a baton.
“You would agree that there are certain qualities required for a police report. It’s got to be accurate, precise and exact,” Durkin said. “People get arrested based on your reports.”
Thompson agreed that reports should be exact “as much as humanly possible.”
“You would agree there are material inaccuracies in your recorded statement?” Durkin asked.
“Yes, there are some errors,” Thompson replied.
Durkin said, “Your statements of throwing punches and boxing (by Zehm) is not supported by the subjective security video.”
Thompson agreed but said, “I know at least fists unequivocally hit me in the chest. To the day I die, I know where I was hit with fists.”
Thompson described his thoughts as he responded to the call that Zehm might have taken money from an ATM.
“My threat assessment began when I started to read that (Computer Assisted Dispatch) and knew I was going on the call,” he said. “That’s when I started formulating the what if’s. You go in pre-loaded with these schemas. Are we going to have a foot pursuit? Is somebody going to get hurt? Is there going to be an escalation? That thought process doesn’t start when you roll up on the call. It’s too late then.”
Durkin also had Thompson talk about his conversations with fellow Spokane police Officer Tim Moses.
Thompson said he told Moses on the night of the incident that he used his baton to hit Zehm “everywhere I could.”
Moses told ambulance attendants the night of the confrontation – and later, federal investigators – that Thompson had said he hit Zehm in the head with the baton, which would constitute unjustified deadly force. Moses testified earlier in Thompson’s trial that he didn’t remember the contents of those conversations.
Durkin asked Thompson about a conversation he had with Moses on June 22, 2009, after an FBI agent requested a meeting with Moses.
“Officer Moses did contact me and asked me what I thought and asked if it was OK to talk to” the federal agent, Thompson said. “My response was yes.”
After Thompson finished his testimony, Assistant U.S. Attorney Aine Ahmed called Joseph Callanan, who spent 22 years with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department. Callanan now works as a policy and procedures consultant for other law enforcement departments and as a paid expert witness in court cases.
Callanan noted that most of his testimony is in support of officers’ actions.
“In most typical police cases that you analyze, you see a subject aggressing on a police officer,” he said. “But in this case, the officer … is the aggressor.”
Callanan said it was a “huge leap” for Thompson to hear details of a possible theft from an ATM and decide it was a robbery.
Thompson testified that one of his biggest concerns was that Zehm might take hostages in the Zip Trip; Callanan said Thompson’s reasoning was flawed.
“You take some raw information you haven’t tested or verified and go to the extreme scenario and use that to back up what I view as bad police procedure,” he said.
If Thompson truly was worried about facing a robbery suspect with a possible weapon, he should have used a safer approach, Callanan said.
“Opening a door and within a split second transferring your baton to your strong hand and closing on a subject whose back is to you is very poor policemanship,” he said. “I do not know why you would draw a baton … in your gun hand. You have the wrong tool if that subject turned and has a deadly weapon. You just wouldn’t do that. That is not in the training.”
Callanan also disagreed with Thompson’s belief that Zehm could have used the 2-liter soda bottle as a “significant weapon.”
“At best it would be a viable distraction,” Callanan said. “It’s a defensive shield more than it is an offensive weapon.”
Callanan said 98 percent of people who are detained or arrested comply with police orders. Of the other 2 percent, an officer needs more than a verbal refusal to comply to use a baton in an effort to gain compliance.
If an officer uses force based on what he or she could “anticipate” or “can imagine,” then all uses of force would be justified, Callanan said.
“Then, how long does the force go on?” he asked. “After the first baton strike, the second, the third … How do you continue to deliver blows to a subject who is down on the ground? There is some point where you have to turn it off or de-escalate.”
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