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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Mayor promises review of Zehm case

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner gathers her thoughts with public affairs officer Marlene Feist, left, before Verner addressed the media Friday on the Otto Zehm case. (Dan Pelle)

A hastily arranged briefing by Spokane Mayor Mary Verner on Friday announcing her desire for a complete internal and external review of the Otto Zehm controversy turned into a platform for Councilman Bob Apple to denounce what he called the city’s history of “sweeping incidents under the rug.”

Apple, who was not invited to Verner’s announcement, said he agrees with Verner’s idea but believes it has come years too late.

“This was swept under the carpet and covered up,” he said. “There’s an inbred problem that needs to be corrected.”

Verner, flanked by City Council members who were invited, said she intends to have an expert review all aspects of the case once criminal and civil legal proceedings are finished, and to empanel a citizen board to oversee the review. She refused to take questions but handed out two pages of frequently asked questions, along with the city’s answers.

“Our citizens expect the city’s elected leaders to take responsibility for the actions of our officers and other employees and do our best to see justice is served in an incident where a man – Mr. Otto Zehm – died,” Verner said. “We are working together to step up to these reasonable expectations of our citizens.”

David Condon, who is challenging Verner in the upcoming general election, said the city’s handling of the Zehm controversy appears to be more of an exercise in risk management than in trying to find the truth.

“She is looking at it very legalistically rather than as a leader of the city,” Condon said. “We should be making sure that those harmed are made whole and those who did wrong will be held accountable.”

The controversy stems from a confrontation on March 18, 2006, between Zehm, a mentally ill janitor, and Spokane police officers. Zehm stopped breathing after being repeatedly hit with a baton, shocked with a Taser and hogtied on his stomach, and died in a hospital two days later.

Acting police Chief Jim Nicks initially said officers followed policy and procedure and said Zehm “lunged” and “attacked” the first officer on scene, Karl F. Thompson Jr.

Later, Nicks and others changed their description of the events when surveillance footage of the confrontation showed Zehm retreating.

Attorneys representing Zehm’s mother and estate filed a civil lawsuit against the city in March 2009. Four months later, a federal grand jury indicted Thompson for using unreasonable force and lying to investigators.

U.S. District Court Judge Lonny Suko put the civil case on hold after federal prosecutors raised concerns about what they described as city attorneys sharing information between the civil and criminal cases.

After two delays, the criminal trial against Thompson is scheduled to begin Oct. 11. Federal prosecutors have revealed through court records that Nicks will testify Thompson violated policies and procedures and used a level of force that was not justified.

On Aug. 16, Mayor Verner announced the city would take “all courses of action” to settle the civil case after learning the full scope of Nicks’ expected testimony. But on Friday, she made no mention of any negotiations to end that case.

“We too want justice, healing and rebuilding the trust in our police officers,” Verner said. “The council and I have been working for several weeks to craft some actions,” referring to the plan for internal and external reviews.

But Councilman Richard Rush, who was invited to Friday’s briefing but couldn’t attend, said he learned of plans for the reviews when a news release was circulated late Thursday.

“It was kind of haphazard,” Rush said. “The mayor caught me at another meeting and asked if I could come to this and that was the extent of it. She said that’s what this is and what I’ve got planned and can you come.”

Apple, while having harsh words for the city’s past actions in the case, defended Nicks.

“Nicks, he’s an honorable, outstanding officer. I have no doubt he’s telling the truth,” Apple said. “That’s what I want from all our officers. (Nicks is) probably feeling a lot of pressure because he’s not toeing the line.”

Apple said he remembers being briefed about Nicks’ expected testimony some three years ago.

Verner “knew three years ago, but … the city attorneys were saying that he wasn’t a qualified expert and it was unlikely that the information would be allowed to be heard.”

Apple said the timing of Verner’s briefing coincides with “political season.”

“At this point, our city is locked into an attitude where they are not willing to change. My impression was they thought this whole baby would go away. But it got worse when it got to federal court,” he said.

He expects city residents to be “shocked” when they learn of the evidence in the upcoming trial.

“I think the outcome will be an indictment of the operations of the city of Spokane,” he said. “Most of the elected officials, including this mayor, want to say, ‘Just trust us.’ Unfortunately, I know better.”

Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said she was invited to the briefing, but put the wrong time on her schedule. She said she supports Verner’s plan.

“The truth in all of this should have been aired in court, then we need to move forward toward healing,” she said. “This has been an open wound for five and a half years for the Zehm family, the community and the officers. I feel for everybody in it.”