September 9, 2011 in City

Mayor promises ‘thorough’ review of Otto Zehm case

 
Dan Pelle photo

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner, right, gathers her thoughts with public affairs officer Marlene Feist before Verner addresses the media on Sept. 9, 2011, about her and the city council’s intent to complete a review of all aspects of the Otto Zehm case.
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Otto Zehm FAQs
The City of Spokane issued a list of frequently asked questions about its handling of the Otto Zehm case, in a press briefing on Sept. 9, 2011. View the document from the city here.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner announced this morning that a “thorough internal and external review” of the five-year-old death of Otto Zehm would start when the legal cases are finished.

Zehm, a 36-year-old Spokane man, died following a confrontation with police in March 2006.

“It has been five long years since this tragedy occurred, five long years we have all waited for this case to be resolved,” Verner said at a press briefing, flanked by members of the City Council.

She said city officials realize citizens are frustrated there has been no resolution to the case, and that the city wants to rebuild community trust in the police department and its officers.

“We are working together to step up to the reasonable expectations of our citizens,” Verner said in her statement this morning. “We too are frustrated by the time that has expired” since Zehm died.

Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. faces federal charges of using excessive force and lying to investigators after the confrontation. The city also faces a civil lawsuit from Zehm’s family.

Verner said much of the delay in resolving the Zehm matter is beyond the city’s control as the civil and criminal cases work their way through the courts.

Verner said when all legal cases involving Zehm’s death are completed, the city will name an expert to conduct the city’s review as well as a panel of citizens to oversee the review. Police ombudsman Tim Burns will serve as a liaison to the review, the mayor said.

The review also will be separate from a planned police investigation of the case, she added.

Verner wouldn’t take questions from reporters this morning. Instead, she passed out answers to “frequently asked questions” in the case.

But after the mayor’s briefing, City Councilman Bob Apple addressed reporters with harsh words for the city and police. Apple, who said he wasn’t notified of the mayor’s briefing, said the federal trial of Thompson will be “an indictment” on the city’s policies and procedures.

The mayor’s remarks come three days after her challenger in this November’s general election, David Condon, called the city’s handling of the Zehm case “an indictment” on city government and called for greater police oversight as well as at least one dismissal from the city attorney’s office. He leveled the harshest criticism at his opponent, saying Verner “has wasted taxpayer money and slowed the course of justice by her defense of the city bureaucracy and the mismanagement of this case.

Earlier this week, responding to Condon, Verner’s re-election campaign issued a news release in which she accused Condon of “a reckless attempt to use the tragedy of the Otto Zehm death for his personal political ambition.”

Verner’s statement blamed the controversy on the administration of Mayor Dennis Hession, who led the city when the confrontation occurred, County Prosecutor Steve Tucker and others.

“I believe the voters will see through his attempt to blame me for actions of a former city administration, the county prosecutor, and other attorneys working on this case in Federal Court. As I have said all along, I respect the judicial process and the facts that will come forth,” Verner said in her Tuesday statement.

Verner became mayor in November 2007. In June 2009, the city filed a response to the Zehm family’s lawsuit and argued that Zehm bore the blame for the incident. The city said that responding officers followed proper police procedure even though court records indicate by that point the man who led the department at the time of the confrontation, Assistant Chief Jim Nicks, disagreed with that assessment.

In June 2009, officials in the U.S. attorney’s office sought to meet with Verner, City Council President Joe Shogan and police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick. They wanted to discuss prosecutors’ concerns that the city attorney’s office was more concerned about protecting the city from a lawsuit than in the Department of Justice’s “search for the truth,” as it was stated in the email requesting the meeting from Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Durkin to City Attorney Howard Delaney.


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