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Doug Clark: Many wrongs, one big right in Zehm case

Repentance is a concept normally relegated to cathedrals, chapels and bar stools just before closing time.

But on Tuesday afternoon, a downtown mediation court was the sanctuary where the city of Spokane made amends to the family of the late Otto Zehm for civic sins committed.

The settlement price tag is a reported $1.67 million.

The formal apology coming from the city to the Zehms?


Six years and change have passed since an assault by cops put the name Otto Zehm on the lips of practically everyone in this town.

And for much of that time the city took the hard line. The jackals we pay to serve us refused to concede that any wrongs had been done to the 36-year-old janitor on March 18, 2006.


Ha! Let me tell you about it.

It was wrong when two young women reported falsely that Zehm might have stolen something out of an ATM machine.

It was wrong when Spokane cop Karl Thompson Jr. unleashed a savage, unprovoked club-and-Taser beat-down on Zehm inside a North Division convenience store.

It was wrong when officials at the scene hogtied Zehm and, fearing he might spit, stuck a plastic breathing mask on his face without hooking the tiny air hole to a source of oxygen.

It was wrong when Thompson lied in an attempt to cover the violence he had committed.

It was wrong when SPD brass noted fraudulently that Zehm was an aggressor who used the 2-liter plastic bottle of Diet Pepsi he planned to drink as a weapon against Thompson.

It was wrong when the serpents of the city’s legal department claimed audaciously that Zehm – who died two days following the attack without regaining consciousness – was the architect of his own demise.

So many wrongs.

So much shame.

When you consider these things, Tuesday’s settlement with the Zehm family marks a glorious milestone for Spokane.

Along with the apology there will come a recommendation to honor Zehm with some sort of edifice in a city park.

That would be nice.

More training for police officers in crisis intervention is being called for, plus 50 grand for a consultant on policy changes regarding use of force.

It should be obvious to all that we wouldn’t be savoring this moment without the recent upchucking of City Hall leadership.

Heck, the last mayor parroted the city’s “cops did nothing wrong” party line.

Boy Mayor David Condon, however, is making good on his campaign promises to end the distrust for police that grew like toadstools in a rain forest in the days following Otto’s death.

In exchange, the Zehm family will suspend their lawsuit against nine city police officers.

Nothing is ever perfect, of course.

As fine as this settlement is, there will be no real closure so long as Thompson remains Spokane’s convict at large.

A federal jury nailed him on two counts last November in Yakima.

Guilty for excessive force.

Guilty for lying to investigators.

Yet this confirmed felon has been able to avoid all but a brief jail stay thanks to a Santa Claus judge and some deft lawyering from Thompson’s public-paid Scheme Team.

And the wrongdoing, alas, continues.

Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at