YAKIMA – After more than five years of videotape review and federal allegations of a police coverup, Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. on Thursday explained his actions against Otto Zehm before a jury.
In his first public comments since his statement to detectives four days after the March 18, 2006, confrontation with Zehm, Thompson gave new justifications for his use of force that day and acknowledged that he erred in some of his descriptions of how he struck Zehm with a baton and Tasered him during a prolonged struggle. Zehm died two days later.
Thompson, 64, looked at attorneys with a square jaw and answered everything that came at him.
“It was a profound tragedy for his family, for his friends, for me,” Thompson said of his encounter with Zehm. “It has extended throughout my department and the community.”
Defense attorney Carl Oreskovich asked Thompson if his actions affect him to this day. “I suspect for the rest of my life,” he replied.
Under cross-examination, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Durkin had Thompson read portions of his statement, and then showed the jury the corresponding video, most of which didn’t show what Thompson described.
Durkin pointed out that Thompson in 2006 cited a theft or “premature possible robbery attempt” as his justification for use of force. But the officer testified Thursday that he believed from information being dispatched at the time that he was responding to an actual robbery and that he feared Zehm might take hostages in the store.
“Do you agree that every one of your errors tends to justify the use of force you used against Mr. Zehm?” Durkin asked. Thompson replied: “I don’t agree with how you are presenting that.”
The cross-examination of Thompson will continue today. Federal prosecutors said they intend to call one expert on police tactics as a rebuttal witness and another medical expert who can’t arrive until Monday. After that doctor testifies, attorneys are expected to give closing arguments on Monday.
Thompson on Thursday provided new details for what he thought he was facing when he volunteered to respond to the call that night. Thompson said he heard the call from the two young women at a nearby ATM who had the erroneous belief that Zehm had taken their money. The young women followed Zehm, who at one point began running from them.
“What that means to me as an officer … it means we might have a foot pursuit,” Thompson testified. “This thing can explode on you.”
He drove to the store and saw Zehm “come out of the shadows, look at me and walk into the store,” he said.
Thompson said the last thing he heard on his radio was a dispatcher confirming Zehm had taken money from the callers.
“What I believe we were dealing with was a second-degree robbery,” Thompson said, even though that was never broadcast. “Now he knows I’m here. When we try to stop or detain people, it’s not unusual for them to slow down and try to blend in. They don’t all run.”
Thompson followed Zehm into the store. “My greatest concern was that there were people inside that store,” he said.
Thompson said he rushed at Zehm, who grabbed a 2-liter bottle of pop. Thompson said he “quickly” barked commands that Zehm refused.
“How can a pop bottle be a threat to you?” Oreskovich asked. Thompson replied: “Sir, that’s like holding a brick in your hands.”
Thompson continued, “The alarm is he has just turned on me. He had the opportunity to flee if he wished.
“When I realized he wasn’t going to drop the bottle, I thought he was going to come at me. I thought I was going to have a serious fight there. It scares you.”
The video shows at most four seconds from the time Thompson rounded the corner and Zehm looked his way to the first baton strike. Zehm retreated, putting the bottle in front of his face as Thompson began to strike.
Thompson then described falling on top of Zehm when “there were two quick swings at my face” prior to him using his Taser.
But the video shows a stretch of 16 seconds where Thompson stood over Zehm, who seemed to have stopped moving. Thompson later conceded under cross-examination that the video shows nothing of the punches he describes.
Durkin asked Thompson how he could make at least two commands and receive two answers, plus perceive Zehm’s posture as pre-assaultive, all in four seconds.
“I think that is one of the time distortion errors that I made in the (2006) report,” Thompson said.
Since that time “until you are sitting here today, have you ever described this time distortion issue?” Durkin asked.
“I was trying to be as precise and accurate as possible,” Thompson responded. “I made some errors in that. I recognize that.”