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Editorial: Caring public refused to let lies against Zehm stand

So it ended in silence. No insensitive salutes from fellow officers. No outbursts from citizens.

More than six years after Otto Zehm died in police custody, former Spokane police Officer Karl Thompson Jr. was sentenced to four years and three months in prison. The sentence itself came after an agonizingly long year of legal delays that called into question whether justice would ever be served.

U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle noted that this case of police brutality involved lying and a cover-up. Thompson’s been convicted, but he didn’t act alone. The feds could still bring charges against those who allegedly covered for Thompson.

It isn’t difficult to imagine this turning out differently if the beating weren’t caught on camera. Even then, there were four months of resistance before the public saw the tape. And though that contradicted the police version, the city stuck to an unconscionable legal strategy of blaming the victim.

The developmentally disabled janitor who merely wanted soda and a Snickers was a threat to nobody. He didn’t lunge. He didn’t fight. What the public saw instead was how quickly an officer turned snippets of information into vicious baton strikes and electrical jolts. What a jury concluded was that Thompson not only acted hastily, he acted criminally.

If not for the public, he might’ve gotten away with it, because his superiors and colleagues were willing to spin a tale and dutifully line up behind it. What’s chilling is how firmly the ranks held. Two mayors responded weakly. With the exception of Bob Apple, the City Council was quiet. The prosecutor’s office wanted no part of the case. If the feds hadn’t intervened, nobody would’ve been brought to justice.

To add insult to injury, Thompson arranged his finances in such a way that the public had to pay for his defense.

What is heartening is how citizens mobilized and fought City Hall. Social justice attorneys came to the aid of a grieving Zehm family. The community infused city leaders with the courage needed to breach the blue wall. Now they all want a police ombudsman with more independent powers. Now they all want a part of that apology to Ann Zehm, Otto’s mother.

The only lunge in this sad saga was the scramble to get on the right side of justice.

Spokane Mayor David Condon has urged the community to move forward, but that’s different from moving on. “Forward” connotes progress. Progress means ensuring those who participated in the cover-up are brought to justice. Progress means a truly independent police oversight system. Progress is a police force that understands that public trust is its own reward, and not something to be negotiated.

City Hall has taken some positive steps. The legal team has reformed its aggressive adversarial pose. The Police Department will be adopting use-of-force reforms. The Machiavellian players in this tragedy have been pushed out. But more is needed.

Ann Zehm wrote to the court, “I think about Otto every day. I often cry for him.”

A compassionate, watchful community also grieves, as it awaits greater progress. If it doesn’t come, this won’t end in silence.

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