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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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City says Zehm 911 recording was mislabeled

Comment that janitor seemed ‘on something’ didn’t make it on initial release

A woman describing Otto Zehm as “on something” to an emergency dispatcher can be heard on a video compilation released by police in October 2006, but not on an audio recording that police had labeled as “911 audio” and released three months earlier.

The difference between the video compilation and the earlier audio recording, which a city spokeswoman says may be a result of the audio recording being mislabeled, may help explain a dispute between the city and lawyers representing Zehm’s mother in a federal civil lawsuit claiming police and the city violated her son’s rights.

Otto Zehm died after a March 18, 2006, confrontation with police at a Zip Trip gas and convenience store. The mentally ill janitor was mistakenly identified as a robbery suspect.

The video compilation was prepared by a specialist hired by the city. It contains the woman’s “on something” comment, which the city uses in part of its argument against Ann Zehm’s claims.

“Did he seem high or intoxicated?” the 911 dispatcher asks in the transcript prepared by Grant Fredericks, the city’s specialist, in October 2006.

“I don’t think he was drunk. I th— he’s on something,” replies the woman, who called to say she thought someone was stealing money from an ATM on North Division Street.

About 25 seconds later, a dispatcher tells the responding police officers that a suspect is “still bent down messing with the ATM and the complainant thinks he appears to be high.”

Lawyers for Zehm’s mother say they have a written transcript that contains the “on something” comment but the city has not given them a recording that confirms the transcript.

In a story about a federal court filing by Zehm’s attorneys from the Center for Justice last Saturday, The Spokesman-Review incorrectly reported that the “on something” comment could not be found in recordings released by the city to the media. After city officials insisted they had released the comment, the newspaper found a transcript of the full 911 call, which contains the comment, in the newsroom. On Friday, the city rereleased the October 2006 compilation, which it calls a “mash-up” DVD that synchronizes video from the ATM; the Zip Trip where police confronted, beat and shocked Zehm with a Taser; the 911 call; and audio from police and fire units that responded to the call.

The October 2006 compilation contains about five minutes of conversation between the woman and a 911 dispatcher that is missing from the audio recording released in July 2006. City police won’t comment on the recordings because of the lawsuit, but Marlene Feist, a city spokeswoman, said the discrepancy appears to be a result of the two jurisdictions that handle emergency calls.

When a person calls 911, an operator who works for Spokane County takes the call and gets some basic information.

The operator then hands off the call to a dispatcher from the appropriate jurisdiction to handle the emergency, in this case, the city police.

The city released the city dispatcher’s discussion to the media but not the county dispatcher’s initial conversation with the woman, she said. The reason isn’t clear, and the police officer who prepared the recordings and might have been able to explain it recently died.

“It’s mislabeled,” Feist said of the audio recording. The audio recording was transcribed on The Spokesman-Review’s Web site the day it was released and posted on KXLY’s Web site, where it remains in the station’s Web archives.

The October 2006 compilation also remains in the KXLY Web site’s archives, where, city officials argue, it is in the public domain and easily accessible. In a letter to the newspaper Thursday, Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi called allegations by Zehm’s attorneys that the 911 tape doesn’t match the transcript as “baseless” and said they’ll be addressed in court, not in the newspaper. Discovery – the exchange of documents and evidence – is still under way in the case, he said.

Jeffry Finer, one of Zehm’s attorneys, said he apparently has the same “911 audio” recording the news media received, which he obtained through a public records request. If there are two tapes, the city should have supplied both under that request, he said.

He’s seen the “on something” dialogue written in the transcript and will listen for it in copies of the October 2006 compilation, like those released to the media. But to have an independent expert examine the tape, plaintiffs will need a copy of the original conversation with the operator, Finer said.

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