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Shawn Vestal: Otto Zehm case still a stain on culture of Spokane’s police department

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 15, 2015, 5:34 p.m.

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

Two Spokane police officers – a long-serving captain and a long-serving lieutenant – took a stand last year for honesty and credibility in the department.

Or maybe that should be “honesty” and “credibility.”

In the end, reading their internal affairs complaints leaves a much different impression than they intended. And it provides the millionth reminder that the tentacles of the Otto Zehm case remain entwined throughout the department’s culture, even as the leadership changes.

To summarize: Two of the officers most closely associated with the false story that was sold to the public about Zehm’s death – The Lunge of Otto – filed formal complaints about the honesty of the former department spokeswoman.

Their complaint against Monique Cotton would be strange and petty even if she did what they accused her of: not reporting a dent in her city car in a timely fashion and “falsifying” an internal document that was actually just updated. The human resources investigator who looked into the complaints dismissed them unequivocally: “This allegation is unfounded. … This allegation is unfounded. … This allegation is unfounded. …” Nine times.

It’s unclear whether the conflict had anything to do with the now-notorious shifting of Cotton to another job at City Hall, which occurred more than a year after the complaint was dismissed. There remains a black hole of information surrounding the disintegration of Frank Straub’s tenure as chief and the handling of it by Mayor David Condon’s administration.

At this point, it looks like a botched cover-up (shifting Cotton out of a police job) followed by a botched attempt to act accountable (firing Straub) followed by a botched and blasé attitude about finding a new chief (the clear sense that there’s no rush to find a qualified outsider as a replacement). All of that orbits a void of specific, factual information. How will this mess look, I wonder, when we know more? All signs point to worse.

Last February, the head of the Lieutenants and Captains Association – the union that later helped push Straub out – filed internal affairs complaints on behalf of its two members. The complaints and investigation were released as part of a public records request, and first reported by the Inlander.

One of the complaints came from Capt. Dan Torok, who claimed that Cotton had falsified work records and had been dishonest. Torok said Cotton improperly changed a policy governing when a public information officer would respond to crime scenes. It stemmed from an incident on Garland Avenue in which Torok felt that Cotton should have shown up to handle media inquiries and did not.

The other complaint came from Lt. Joe Walker, who claimed that Cotton had not filed a report about minor damage to a city vehicle in a timely fashion.

Good to know these guys are focusing on the big stuff.

A city human-resources investigation concluded there was nothing to the complaints. It also concluded there was a history of bad blood among the parties, and that Torok’s complaint was part of a “ruse” in which he was attempting to misrepresent a document that he knew had been updated as falsified “to further his disagreement of (Cotton’s) decision not to respond to the Garland shooting incident.”

So there’s that. But there is also a level of spectacular irony packed into the notion of Walker and Torok making these puritanical complaints.

Remember The Lunge of Otto? This was the fiction peddled by the department in the wake of Zehm’s beating and death – an assertion that an “assaultive” Otto had lunged at Karl Thompson before Thompson started whaling on him with his baton. This assertion was false, and it was known to be false by at least some SPD officers before it was peddled to the public for months.

Walker and Torok helped peddle. They were absolutely critical links in that chain. It’s not possible to know for certain what was in their minds, and what they knew and didn’t know, but here’s the sequence of events as laid out by federal prosecutors in the Thompson case:

Torok and Walker were part of the SPD response the night that Thompson beat Zehm in the Division Street Zip Trip. Torok helped subdue Zehm, and he and Karl Thompson briefed Walker and others when they arrived on the scene. The lunge story originated there. Torok and Walker initially shared on-scene command authority.

Walker and two other officers then viewed the videotapes, which showed no lunge. One of those other officers then told Thompson this, federal prosecutors alleged.

When Assistant Chief Jim Nicks arrived on the scene, he was briefed by Torok and Walker, among others.

Remember: This was after prosecutors say Walker and others had seen the video. After Thompson had been told there was no lunge on the tapes.

Following that briefing and presumably based upon it, Nicks held a press conference in which he asserted that Otto “lunged” at Thompson, that he “attacked” Thompson, and that Thompson used his baton in a “defensive” manner.

All false. All knowably, objectively false.

So, let’s say that, somehow, Walker and Torok, these men who still hold positions of authority in our city’s police department, didn’t know that at the time. It still makes them very odd choices to assign themselves as arbiters of honesty in the matter of a dented car door.

This is more than simply looking backward. How the department moves forward will depend in great measure on who leads it, and how that person manages the cultural challenges. No matter how much training is imposed, no matter how many reforms are put in place, the organization’s cultural problem – exposed in relentless support for Thompson by a significant number of our cops – remains, because so many of the individuals who make up that culture remain.

The saluters remain. The cops who wanted Thompson as chief remain. The people whose fingerprints were all over the shoddy and incomplete initial investigation into the case remain. Straub is gone and Cotton is gone and Nicks is gone and Thompson is gone – but many of those who tried to sell us The Lunge of Otto remain.

People say it’s time to move past the Zehm case. But maybe we moved past it too quickly.

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


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