Mediation may be the beginning of the end to claims the family of Otto Zehm has made against the city of Spokane for his death at the hands of Spokane police officers.
Perhaps it can also be a start to reconciliation between the Police Department and citizens aggrieved by the incident, the conviction of Officer Karl Thompson Jr. for his role and the Police Guild’s coolness toward more citizen oversight.
Although the civil case brought by the family was overshadowed by the criminal proceedings against Thompson, it could potentially have a much greater effect on the city, to the good, and not.
The “not” is the financial impact, which at least is probably capped at $1 million. Anything above that amount (up to $10 million more) would be the burden of the city’s insurer. Because of the cost of providing an attorney for Thompson in the civil case and associated expenses that will be deducted from the $1 million, how much might be left to contribute to funding the family’s claim is unknown.
Before the lawsuit was filed three years ago, the family had sought $2.9 million from the city.
The insurer, AIG, will be at the table, too. As will be the case with the city, AIG will be weighing the cost of a settlement against what a jury might award in damages and the cost of litigating the case. Thompson’s conviction in the criminal trial suggests that a determination of city culpability in the civil case, where the standards of proof are lower, may be a foregone conclusion. If so, the amount of the money judgments would be the only contested issue.
However, the mediation will likely be about more than money. The Zehm family and its attorneys developed a plan for reforming the Police Department that has circulated for some time. How much implementation of some plan elements might weigh in reaching a settlement is one of the unknowns: The city and family have agreed to keep the mediation private until there is a resolution.
But in his State of the City address Friday, Mayor David Condon said his new administration is already taking several of the actions included in the Zehm proposal. For example, within 100 days officers will receive more training in the handling of individuals who, like Zehm, have mental disabilities. A commission to study officer use of force has been named. Purchase of body cameras for officers is also on the agenda.
Condon has the immense advantage of a clean slate in the Zehm case, certainly an advantage that contributed to his election victory. A speedy, successful mediation would be an important first step for his administration. Failure would return the matter to the courts, there to linger while the city and citizens try to move on.
A settlement will not entirely wrap up the Zehm matter. A federal investigation into other aspects of the case continues. But resolution of the family’s claim will close one chapter and begin the healing.
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