I sat down with newly-appointed Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl Tuesday to talk about the community response to his surprise appointment.
Several community members had strong reactions to Meidl's appointment, given his participation in the salute of former officer Karl Thompson following his conviction for violating civil rights in the death of Otto Zehm.
Meidl said he's previously apologized to the Zehm family, but offered a broader community apology Tuesday for the first time. A snippet of his remarks and apology are included in this article, but here's a lightly edited transcription of what Meidl said on the subject during our interview.
“That whole Otto Zehm, Karl Thompson event threw a dark cloud over the department. The department was being constantly criticized and ridiculed and minimized, and despite what had occurred in this incident over here, we still had men and women going out every single day and doing a fantastic job, but there was nobody supporting the rest of the department separate from that incident. There did not seem to be any internal leadership that was supporting the rest of the officers, and the overall consensus I got from the officers was they felt that nobody was standing up for them.
As a major who was in a leadership position, I was very aware of the extreme sadness that was affecting the entire department. My intent in going to the sentencing was to show support for the officers in the dept that were still doing a phenomenal job everyday, but also to show support for Karl Thompson separate from the conviction. There was obviously a sentence. Everyone understood he had to serve his sentence. But we were not willing to demonize a man who spent over 40 years serving his nation in the Army, decorated Vietnam vet, had several decades of law enforcement serving his community as well. We knew him different than how he was seemingly being portrayed in the media. We knew the person ... so when the spontaneous salute was called for, it was not planned.
It was in essence our last chance that we were going to be able to see Karl Thompson before he was sent off to prison, and it was a gesture that had every intention of showing appreciation for his service, again, not a reflection on the conviction or what had occurred in this separate incident the way we viewed it.
I would wager most of the officers that were there had no idea how that would be interpreted by the rest of the city because it wasn’t about the trial, it wasn’t about the conviction, it wasn’t about any of these other issues. It was about the man we knew. So I think there was a lot of confusion after it occurred and a lot of realization that none of us anticipated that it would have been interpreted the way that it was. I think all of us, in hindsight, realized the message that it sent, and I would also propose that that’s why you haven’t seen that behavior again, because we did after that fact realize this was not interpreted by the community the way we meant to present it to Karl.
Since then, I have talked to the Zehm family and apologized for the hurt and the pain that was caused by not only myself, but the officers that were there, apologized for the pain and hurt and, what I read somewhere as well, the fear that that generated in certain segments of the community. There’s probably not a week that goes by where I don’t look back on the prior week and think of something that I could have done differently, but in that incident I can’t go back and change it . All I can do is learn from it and all the department can do is learn from it, and I think we have. Let me rephrase that - I know we have. And that’s why I think you haven’t seen anything similar to that occur since.
I’ve heard through the grapevine people wanted an apology to the community. I think that was the confusion - do you call a press conference? ... Absolutely one hundred percent I apologize for the hurt and the pain that was created by this incident. It was not done with malice. It was not done to further any pain or hurt that was already caused by this incident. And again to go back to, there was absolutely no ill will or intent, and I certainly will tell you, I apologize to the community and I’ve already apologized to the Zehm family but it was something we all learned from, absolutely.”