Invoking what political commentator William Schneider dubbed the “past exonerative” tense, the city of Spokane has finally admitted that mistakes were made in the Otto Zehm case. But by whom, and why?
Before Mayor David Condon could take those salient questions at a Tuesday afternoon press conference, an Oregon judge who mediated the legal settlement between the city and Zehm’s family intervened, saying: “With regard to them explaining the response of others at another time, that’s for other people, frankly.”
So “other people” made the mistakes for which current leaders are apologizing. Frankly, that is an easy admission to make, especially when you can avoid delving into the rationale for why others perpetuated a six-year civic fraud. It sure explains why everyone was talking in the passive tense.
The press conference itself was striking for who was in attendance: the new mayor, new city attorney and new leader of the Police Department. Also there were six City Council members who were private citizens when Zehm died in police custody in March 2006. City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin is the lone elected official left from that era, and she expressed her support for the settlement in a news article.
However, she also alluded to the circle-the-wagons mentality of past years, which was to stifle concerns even in the face of “red flags.” It’s disturbing to see how compliant two mayors, Dennis Hession and Mary Verner, and several council members were in keeping quiet about the odious legal maneuvers of then-Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi.
U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan praised the new leaders for their openness and transparency as he set about mediating an end to a civil lawsuit, but what’s still missing is an official explanation for why the city made one bad choice after another. Previous leaders said this would be forthcoming once the civil action was resolved. If the new leaders don’t have the answers, they should find out.
That’s not to say that mediation wasn’t welcomed. Condon deserves praise for reaching out to the Zehm family and supporting the process. The Zehms have been exceedingly patient and honorable in the face of outrageous treatment. Had this gone to trial, the damages to the city would’ve probably been a lot worse. But the Zehms were never trying to get rich. They just wanted an acknowledgment of the truth and an apology.
Because of their persistence, the community has gotten a lot more. As part of the settlement, officers will get overdue training on dealing with mentally disabled citizens and the proper use of force. The formation of the ombudsman’s office has come as a direct result of this case.
Though current leaders are not responsible for past transgressions, they are responsible for what happens from now on. They need to press for investigatory powers for the ombudsman, and ensure that the best recommendations from the Use of Force Commission are codified. The city’s overly defensive legal tactics need to be retired for good.
Tuesday was a good day for Spokane, but a hollow feeling remains. It will linger as long as the community is kept in the dark about why the truth had been hogtied and muzzled for six shameful years.