New Spokane police Chief Frank Straub promised that his department has learned and will continue to learn from the 2006 police confrontation that resulted in the death of Otto Zehm and a four-year prison sentence for the officer who instigated it.
“We daily have to make sure that we learn from this incident,” Straub said. “This is a very different police department than it was in 2006.”
He said he and the department welcome oversight and criticism “as long as that continues to be productive.”
Straub said he respected the judge’s sentence, apologized to Zehm’s family, and said the department also will support Thompson’s family “through a very difficult time.”
“Until this incident, Officer Thompson was a good police officer,” Straub said. “I don’t think we can forget that.”
He said the department will conduct an internal investigation into outstanding issues related to other officers’ actions in the case, but he declined to give details.
Straub is the fourth police chief to deal with the Zehm case. He indicated that he has been studying the details in preparation for the oncoming internal investigation.
After the sentencing, Spokane Mayor David Condon called on residents to “join us” in implementing police reform.
“As a city and a police department, we know our challenge is to continue to move forward to a better future,” Condon said in prepared remarks. “Our focus remains on continuing to improve public trust and confidence in the Spokane Police Department and its officers.”
Spokane Police Ombudsman Tim Burns sat in the courtroom during Thursday’s hearings.
“It was truly, for the entire city, a very sad day for Spokane, though necessary and appropriate,” said Burns, who praised the judge for thoroughly examining the evidence and the audience for being respectful. “I’m comfortable with the judge’s decision.”
Former Mayor Dennis Hession, who had been in office only two months when the confrontation occurred, said he suspects both sides are unhappy with the sentencing.
“All I can say is that Judge Van Sickle is a thoughtful and fair man,” Hession said. “He tried to strike a fair balance.”
Hession said he took the issue extremely seriously as mayor, but added, “I probably didn’t know as much as I would have liked to know at the time it happened,” he said.
Former Spokane Mayor Mary Verner, who replaced Hession, said she’s grateful that Condon’s administration “completed our work on settling the civil case and made symbolic apologies.”
“There is much left to do,” Verner said. “A change of heart is needed in Police Guild leadership. And the region needs more safeguards in place to restore citizens’ trust in law enforcement officers.”
Former City Councilman Bob Apple, who was the most outspoken critic of the city’s handling of the Thompson case during his two terms on City Council, which ended in 2011, said the sentence was fair.
“I hope he actually serves it,” Apple said. “I just would have preferred that some of the other responsible people had also been charged.”
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart said the sentence seems too short to him.
“You beat someone to death, I think it should be longer,” he said.
The next step in community healing, he hopes, will be the Spokane Police Guild agreeing to stronger police oversight rules.
“I’m hoping current open negotiations with the guild will result in true police oversight,” he said.
Straub said he supports giving the ombudsman the authority to investigate police misconduct separately from police investigators, but he does not believe a thorough federal review of the department is necessary. Strengthening the ombudsman’s powers is desired by Condon and each City Council member, but the Spokane Police Guild has fought those efforts.
Verner last year requested that federal officials start a “patterns and practices” investigation into the department like one that has been done for the Seattle Police Department. Federal officials still have not announced if they will begin such an examination.
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