May 8, 2013 in City

Nicks’ badge reflected honor in Zehm case

ShawnVestal
 
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Jim Nicks, former assistant police chief, became for many the face of a corrupt response to Otto Zehm’s death.
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As former Spokane police Officer Tim Moses accepts his slap on the hand for the lie known as the Lunge of Otto, it’s worth remembering the local police officer who paid a price in the Zehm case that was far more than he owed: Jim Nicks.

Nicks was the acting chief of police on the night of Zehm’s beating, and Moses helped hang a big, bright lie around his neck: Otto had lunged at Officer Karl Thompson, Moses said. Nicks turned around and told that to the public. He was also the one who eventually corrected that publicly, as well, but he bore most of the public – and media – attention for the misstatement and became for many the face of a corrupt response to Zehm’s death.

It cost him friends. It cost him his reputation. It cost him his career.

He didn’t deserve it.

Nicks retired as assistant chief in 2012. He now works as the operations director for Catholic Charities. During a recent training session on the case given by federal prosecutors and others to law enforcement officers in Seattle, Nicks was portrayed as someone who acted nobly and honorably – in part because of the massive hits he took to his reputation while staying silent, and in part for swimming against the tide of a departmental culture and legal strategy that placed butt-covering above seeking the truth.

Former U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt calls Nicks a “hero.”

“If Jim Nicks did anything wrong, he believed what his people told him on the night of the Zehm incident,” McDevitt said. “He had been fed just a crock.”

Speaking publicly about Nicks’ role for the first time, former police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick says there was a concerted effort within the department to blame Nicks for the lunge lie. She said his decision to stay silent in the face of severe public criticism – criticism he could have tried to deflect – was courageous.

The lunge story lived for several months after Zehm’s death. Far longer than it should have. McDevitt and Kirkpatrick both said Nicks faced resistance in trying to set the record straight from former Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi – author of the legal strategy in which the city blamed Zehm, stood steadfastly behind Thompson, and generally pursued a risk-management cover-up.

As the case proceeded and the shoddiness of the city’s own investigation became apparent, it became more and more difficult to say anything about it publicly, Kirkpatrick said. I reminded her that both she and former Mayor Mary Verner made public statements expressing their view that Thompson had not broken the law, and they made these statements after the feds opened their investigation. This enhanced the view that the refusal to comment was strategic, not principled.

She said that as evidence emerged, it became much harder to say anything that might influence an ongoing case; she and others were asked to refrain from speaking up about it, to avoid tainting the investigation and preserving Thompson’s right to a fair trial. McDevitt says that, of all the people in the department he dealt with, the two people “who were square” and who didn’t want anything hidden were Nicks and Kirkpatrick.

Still, Nicks was left under a spotlight as the face of the cover-up. This didn’t change much as the federal investigation proceeded, even as Nicks testified before the grand jury – telling the truth about the problems with the department’s investigation while others were sticking to the lies or revising their stories in Thompson’s favor. It didn’t change much as he became the only high-profile city official – the only one – who swam against the stream of the city’s official version of events.

For this, Kirkpatrick says, Nicks was ostracized in a department that had been his professional home for more than 30 years.

“What he went through in that police department when he was going to testify was so difficult to watch,” she said.

Kirkpatrick said she only agreed to discuss Nicks and the case now because Moses’ case has been closed. He pleaded guilty Tuesday to a misdemeanor charge of lying to a public official and was sentenced to a year’s probation.

Moses was probably primarily responsible for the Lunge of Otto – either making it up or passing it along, depending on which version of his testimony you accept. He once said Thompson told him that, and he later said he’d come up with the phrase himself. Moses told the lunge tale to others at the crime scene; either he or those others relayed it to Nicks.

Moses’ failure to cooperate with federal investigators would be the best evidence yet of the cancer in the police department and how far it had spread. One cop beating a guy without justification is a certain kind of a problem; a departmentwide moral breakdown is quite another. Moses displayed all the various shades of that – from changing his testimony to favor Thompson, to lying to investigators, to whining belligerently on the witness stand about his treatment at the hands of federal prosecutors.

That testimony was stomach-turning – the entitled cries of a cop who couldn’t believe he wasn’t being treated more gently by fellow officers of the law. “I was shocked that a fellow law enforcement officer would treat me that way,” he said. A juror later identified it as the turning point in the eventual conviction of Thompson.

You know who never whined about this, at least publicly? Jim Nicks. In fact, when I asked Nicks if we could talk about this he said he’d rather just move forward and focus on the future.

Is Jim Nicks a hero? It may be that there’s not much room for talk of heroism in the Zehm case, but some people who know a lot about the case think so. It seems certain, however, that he is not what so many believed he was: the villain.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman. com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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