Spokane city leaders are continuing to mislead the public about the fatal Otto Zehm confrontation, new court documents suggest.
Federal authorities say city officials provided “patently false” information in a “Frequently Asked Questions” handout distributed during a Sept. 9 news conference in which Mayor Mary Verner announced her intent to investigate the city’s handling of the controversial 2006 police encounter once all legal proceedings are complete. The false information is contained in several of the city’s responses in the FAQ, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy Durkin wrote in a 12-page document filed this week in U.S. District Court.
Federal prosecutors filed the document this week in preparation for pretrial arguments in the excessive force case against Spokane police Officer Karl Thompson Jr., the first officer to confront Zehm at a Spokane convenience store. Zehm, a janitor who suffered from schizophrenia, had been wrongly implicated as a theft suspect.
Thompson beat the retreating Zehm with a police baton, shocked him with a Taser and, with help from other officers, eventually hog-tied him on the convenience store floor. Zehm died two days later.
Despite the acting police chief’s eventual acknowledgement to federal investigators that use-of-force policies were violated, the city of Spokane has maintained that its police force did nothing wrong.
Two items in the FAQ drew the greatest interest from federal prosecutors.
In one, the city responds to criticism that it ignored requests by the Justice Department to meet with the mayor, the police chief and council president to express concerns over potential interference in its criminal investigation of the Zehm fatality. The city claims its legal staff met with federal officials instead, which Durkin contends is false.
In fact, Durkin said, city attorneys never even “communicated response to that meeting request.”
In the other, Durkin noted that no court has “yet considered, reviewed, and/or addressed” the actions of any city attorney related to the Zehm matter.
That contradicts the city’s handout, which states: “The court found no issues of conflict or impropriety on the part of the City.”
Speaking Thursday soon after the completion of a candidate debate between Verner and her opponent in the November election, David Condon, she said she was unaware of the court filing.
City spokeswoman Marlene Feist said the city “has no response related to comments by the U.S. attorney in a recent court filing.” She also declined to clarify why Verner did not meet with federal officials after they made the request.
In an email to City Attorney Howard Delaney in June 2009, Durkin asked to meet with Verner, Council President Joe Shogan and police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick to discuss federal officials’ “urgent and pressing concerns” about how the city attorney’s office handled the matter. The email noted that in a previous meeting among attorneys the Department of Justice expressed concern “that your assistant city civil counsel had placed his interests in the ‘civil liability’ case above the completion of the FBI’s and the DOJ’s search for the truth in its criminal investigation.”
Durkin was referring to Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi.
The city’s handling of the Zehm matter has become a campaign issue in city races.
At Thursday’s Rotary Club debate, Condon mentioned the case in his opening statement.
“Why is it taking so long to resolve the situation with Otto Zehm and his family?” Condon asked. “Who knew what and when?”
Verner didn’t mention the issue in the forum. She has said that discussing the case openly while a criminal trial is pending would interfere with the “course of justice.”