May 15, 2012 in City, News

Settlement in Zehm civil suit reached

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

A $1.67 million out-of-court settlement has been reached in the civil suit against Spokane police filed by relatives of Otto Zehm, the mentally ill janitor who died following a violent confrontation with officers after being mistakenly implicated in a possible theft.

The deal also includes a formal apology by city officials, a recommendation to the Spokane Park Board to name a pavilion after Zehm, crisis intervention training for all police officers and $50,000 for a consultant to advise the city about updates to its use-of-force policy.

“I know he would have been happy,” said Dale Zehm, Otto Zehm’s cousin. “We don’t want this to happen to anybody else ever again. Hopefully from these policies, that won’t happen again.”

The settlement came after two days of mediation directed by U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan from Oregon and Sandpoint attorney Ford Elsaesser, who also works as a mediator.

“It’s been very fulfilling to have been part of the process,” Hogan said. “I’m hopeful that we will see a new day … for the relationship between law enforcement and the public of Spokane.”

City Attorney Nancy Isserlis, who noted she’s only been on the job for six weeks, said the settlement ends the suit, in which previous city officials blamed Zehm’s death on his own actions.

Asked why the city settled the case, she said, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

The settlement is subject to approval by the Spokane City Council, but officials today said they expect swift ratification.

The lawsuit was filed by attorneys Jeffry Finer and Breean Beggs on behalf of the mother and estate of Zehm, a mentally ill janitor who died after a violent encounter with Spokane Police officers in 2006.

Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr., who was convicted late last year of using excessive force and lying to investigators, was named in the suit along with eight other members of the department.

U.S. District Court Judge Lonny Suko halted proceedings in the civil case in the fall of 2009 after federal prosecutors alleged that Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi – who was fired last month – was improperly using information gleaned from the case to help defend Thompson against criminal charges.

A video showed that Thompson immediately engaged Zehm, 36, who was retreating. Police confronted Zehm after two young women reported he was behaving erratically. The women erroneously reported that he may have taken money from an ATM.

Thompson beat Zehm with a baton and shocked him with a Taser.

Thompson has yet to be sentenced. U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle postponed the sentencing after an expert witness claimed that federal prosecutors incorrectly summarized his expected testimony.

Previously, Beggs said he was concerned that Ann Zehm, Otto Zehm’s mother, would not live to see the settlement.

“I told her, ‘You lasted six years Ann. They didn’t think you would.”

Beggs said he believes the culture of the Spokane Police Department would not have changed without the six-year legal fight that ended with the agreement.

Otto “achieved in death so much more than he ever imagined,” Beggs said.

Added Finer: “Otto would have given you the jacket off his back. The spirit of this settlement is his spirit.”


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