When Spokane Mayor Mary Verner promised this month that there will be an internal review examining the death of Otto Zehm, it wasn’t the first time a city leader has made such a pledge.
Indeed, the city has had an open contract with a police consultant for more than five years to perform that review.
Mike Worley, police chief of Meridian, Idaho, was hired by former Mayor Dennis Hession in July 2006 to examine Zehm’s death and review the police department’s handling of a case in which Spokane firefighter Daniel Ross had sex in a fire station with a 16-year-old girl and photographed the encounter.
Worley finished his review of the police department’s handling of the Ross case but stopped his review of the Zehm incident pending completion of the criminal investigation.
Verner said her goal is to create a panel to review the case once the “legal cases” surrounding Zehm’s death are over. She said last week, however, that she is open to using Worley’s expertise in some way to assist the review.
“Technically, it’s still an open contract,” said city spokeswoman Marlene Feist. “The mayor and council have not fully defined the scope of their review. This is an option that they could use.”
Worley said earlier this month that he had contacted city officials recently but that they had not gotten back to him with answers about their intent.
“Right now, it’s basically up to the new mayor,” Worley said. “I have been in contact with her office and the city attorney’s office and let them know I’m still here.”
Worley was paid $6,600 out of the $8,800 of his contract for his work in 2006.
Zehm, a 36-year-old Spokane man, was confronted by police in a north Spokane Zip Trip in March 2006 after he was wrongly accused of stealing money. The unarmed janitor who had schizophrenia died two days after he was beaten, hogtied and shocked with a Taser.
The city faces a civil lawsuit from the Zehm family, while the first-arriving officer at the scene, Karl F. Thompson Jr., faces federal criminal charges of using excessive force and lying to investigators after the confrontation.
Hession said recently his assumption was that Worley would finish the job once the criminal case was done, though he added that he’s not sure if city officials remember the outstanding contract.
City Council members Richard Rush and Nancy McLaughlin said they were unaware of or had forgotten about Worley’s potential review.
“First I’ve ever heard of Worley,” Rush said when asked about Worley’s contract.
The firehouse sexual encounter that Worley finished reviewing was reported as rape, but a Spokane police detective and his supervisor who responded ordered the firefighter to delete the photos from his digital camera. Ross, the firefighter, later resigned, but officials said they couldn’t pursue charges in the case, in part because the photo evidence couldn’t be found.
Worley’s completed report recommends that an outside police agency lead investigations anytime Spokane police officers are involved in deadly use of force, even when a death doesn’t occur. That recommendation was soon adopted by the city.
In the Zehm matter, Worley said he still prefers that the criminal case be finished before starting an internal review but that he’s not averse to working on an internal investigation if a civil case is under way.
Breean Beggs, who represents the Zehm family in the civil case against the city, said waiting until the criminal and civil cases are completed could push the review out another couple years, especially if a verdict is appealed. The review already has been delayed more than five years, he noted.
“It should be done starting tomorrow,” Beggs said. “You could stretch it out seven or eight years. Why should the city have to wait that long?”
Verner said it would be reckless to start a review before legal proceedings are done.
“We cannot critique every aspect of this matter while the litigation is ongoing,” Verner said. “I feel that we would interfere with the execution of justice to do so and that’s my heartfelt belief that playing out all the ramifications of what has and has not been done while a trial is being conducted is an interference with the justice system.”