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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Timeline recounts statements by police officials in Zehm case

Thomas Clouse Staff writer

A look at the statements Acting Spokane Police Chief Jim Nicks and department spokesman Cpl. Tom Lee made to The Spokesman-Review regarding the March 18 encounter with 36-year-old Otto Zehm inside a Zip Trip at 1712 N. Division.

“March 18: Nicks, who goes to the Zip Trip that night, describes a “very horrific fight” between several police officers and a suspect, who would later be identified as Zehm.

“The officers were definitely within the (department) policy,” says Nicks. “The officers used the lowest level of force possible.”

He says a single officer confronted the suspect inside the convenience store after citizens call in reports of “suspicious” behavior in the area about 6:15 p.m. Nicks also says the suspect has a criminal record, including a previous assault on a police officer.

“The suspect lunged at the officer during the initial contact, and basically a fight ensued,” Nicks says. The suspect had no obvious injuries but officers call paramedics to be safe.

“March 19: Lee says he still doesn’t know why the suspect stopped breathing after the encounter with officers. The confrontation began when the suspect attacked the single police officer responding to reports of suspicious behavior, says Lee.

“March 20: Nicks announces that Zehm has died at Deaconess Medical Center.

He says the case remains under investigation “but appropriate defensive tactics were used by the officers to subdue this man who fought violently.”

“March 21: Lee says Zehm refused to follow an officer’s directions and then lunged at the officer and began fighting.

“March 23: Nicks names Officers Karl Thompson and Steve Braun Jr. as the first two officers to arrive at the Zip Trip but says the medical examiner has not yet determined a cause of death.

“At this time there is no indication that Mr. Zehm’s death is attributable to the force used by police officers,” he states.

Nicks says the reason for police response on March 18 was the report of an attempted or actual robbery. Previously, Nicks says the response was for a suspicious-person call. He says the confrontation was recorded by surveillance cameras inside the convenience store, but refuses to show the footage, citing the ongoing investigation.

He says Thompson entered the store but could not “obtain control of Mr. Zehm.” Braun arrived and struggled with Zehm. Later, five more officers arrived and were able to put Zehm in arm and leg restraints.

“It appears at this time that all of the force used by the officers and each technique used were solely to obtain and maintain control of Mr. Zehm and place him in restraints,” Nicks says.

“March 24: Police officials acknowledge that Zehm was unarmed and apparently did not have a criminal record for assaulting an officer as they had previously stated.

“March 30: Nicks and Lee say they are prepared to release the Zip Trip video but Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker has told them to keep it sealed.

Lee confirms again that Zehm “lunged” and “attacked” Thompson as he responded to the convenience store.

“May 30: In his most detailed comments yet, Nicks announces the results of Zehm’s autopsy by Medical Examiner Sally Aiken that show Zehm died as a result of homicide.

“I’m very comfortable that the officers confronted a hostile individual, somebody who wasn’t listening for whatever reason,” Nicks says.

He also describes how the seven responding officers “hobbled” Zehm by binding his ankles to his handcuffs using nylon straps and how officers are “trained” to roll hobbled suspects on their sides so they can more easily breathe.

Asked about his previous comments that Zehm “lunged” or “attacked” Thompson, Nicks says that Zehm “immediately engaged” the first officer.

“Whether he lunged or turned quickly on him, whatever the case may be, the officer clearly felt there was a risk there,” Nicks says. “The suspect had a large 2-liter bottle of pop. The officer had to take all those things into consideration as far was what level of threat this might be.”

In the same interview, Nicks says officers followed training by rolling Zehm onto his side the “entire” time. He later says Zehm “was pretty much on his side the majority of the time once he was restrained.”

“July 12: A June 7 letter is released from the attorneys representing Zehm’s family calling for Nicks to retract his descriptions of what is shown on the surveillance video.

According to a letter by Terri Sloyer and John Sklut, the video contradicts earlier official police statements and shows that Zehm was placed on his stomach a majority of the time.

“It is clear from the Zip Trip video that Mr. Zehm never made any movements towards the officer, and only retreated from the officer’s advances,” the attorneys write.

Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi responds in a June 21 letter by saying: “Mr. Zehm’s position cannot always be seen on the video, and he was struggling against the restraints virtually the entire time, regardless of whether he was on his side or stomach. What you have characterized as misrepresentations appear to be your own subjective view of the video and facts.”

“July 13: Police officials release the video, which shows that officers restrained Zehm on his stomach for the majority of the time. The video also shows that Zehm never lunged at or attacked Thompson.

“I made it clear that during the (May 30) press conference my impression was that he was on his side for a great portion of that time,” Nicks says. “So my impression obviously wasn’t quite accurate. But there was no intent to mislead or misdirect in any shape or form.”

“July 17: Mayor Dennis Hession calls a press conference to announce he’ll seek an outside agency to investigate the Zehm case. Hession says the department has lost the trust of the community because of credibility and integrity issues.