May 16, 2012 in City

Why city chose to blame Zehm remains unexplained

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

Spokane city leaders finally are admitting that mistakes were made during a 2006 police confrontation that led to the death of Spokane resident Otto Zehm.

But it remains unclear if the city will answer a key question, one that officials have suggested for months would be explained. Why did city attorneys make official claims in 2009 that Zehm was responsible for his own death and that force used against him was “reasonable and necessary,” even though by that time then-Assistant Chief Jim Nicks had told a grand jury that the response likely violated department policy?

Asked at a news conference on Tuesday if the city will reveal why it blamed Zehm for his death, U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan, of Oregon, who helped mediate the settlement, interrupted to answer for Mayor David Condon.

“We have some new people here now and these people have been completely open about the facts of this situation with me from the first day I began to work on this,” Hogan said. “With regard to them explaining the response of others at another time, that’s for other people, frankly. I can say for clients’ lawyers, for the mayor and for the city attorney they have been completely open, transparent, forthcoming – you pick the term.”

Zehm, a janitor who was mentally ill, died in 2006 after he was beaten, hog-tied and shocked with a Taser by police in a north Spokane Zip Trip when officers responded to a false theft report.

Hogan is correct that there’s a new slate of people running the city who didn’t set the city’s legal path until settlement was almost a foregone conclusion.

Condon cruised to victory over former Mayor Mary Verner in November a week after the first responding officer to Zehm, Karl F. Thompson Jr., was convicted by a federal jury in November of using excessive force and lying to investigators. One of Condon’s major campaign themes was questioning the city’s handling of the Zehm case.

He fired City Attorney Howard Delaney, who was in charge of the city legal department during most of Verner’s term.

The new city attorney, Nancy Isserlis, fired Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi, who led much of the city’s response to the case.

Only one elected city leader remains in office from the time Zehm died: City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin. She said Tuesday that “her heart goes out to (Zehm’s mother) Mrs. Zehm” and that she is grateful for a settlement.

“The very first time I saw the store video, red flags were going off all over in my head that something didn’t feel right,” said McLaughlin, of the store security videos showing Zehm being beaten. Those videos were at the center of the case. “I remember pushing back to some degree behind closed doors but being strongly told that we needed to be very careful about what we said in the open because this was potential litigation and that it wasn’t legally right for us to do that.”

McLaughlin said Treppiedi worked hard for the city, but his aggressive defense obviously hurt the city more than helped in the Zehm case. City legal staff stressed to elected leaders that the tapes didn’t have audio, didn’t show the entire event and that there was other evidence that needed to be considered.

“It makes me wonder if he (Treppiedi) just didn’t see it because of his aggressive nature and the way he defended cases for the city,” McLaughlin said.

Reached at home Tuesday, Treppiedi hung up the phone when asked to comment about the settlement.

Verner was asked repeatedly in the fall why the city blamed Zehm for his death, but she said it was inappropriate for her to answer until the lawsuit was settled. She indicated that the question might be answered by the Use of Force Commission, which she proposed.

But that group, which was formed by Condon this year, has largely avoided the specifics of the Zehm case.

Attempts made Tuesday to reach Verner and former Mayor Dennis Hession, who led the city when the police confrontation occurred, were unsuccessful.

City Council President Ben Stuckart said he strongly supports the settlement, but believes the city should still answer: “What did we do wrong and why did we do what we did?”

He said he may propose a resolution requesting that the administration provide a full review.

Asked if he felt misled by the city’s legal staff over the years about the case, former City Council President Joe Shogan declined to answer, calling it “water under the bridge.” But he said he was pleased that a settlement was reached.

“It closes the door on the past, and you move forward into the future,” Shogan said Tuesday. “It’s been a real difficult and painful issue for the city for all these years. I hope this brings a just resolution.”

Breean Beggs, an attorney who represents the Zehm family, said with the settlement in hand that city leaders can be open with the public about their handling of the case.

“Those questions are all fair game,” Beggs said. “There were political reasons, and legal strategies and collective bargaining – all those factors were in play – and I think bad decision-making in the past, and that can’t be undone. But new decisions can be made, and they have been.”

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