The Spokane City Council on Monday closed one chapter of the excessive force case that has dominated Spokane headlines for six years by finalizing the $1.67 million settlement with the family of Otto Zehm.
The council voted unanimously for the deal, which was reached in mediation last week between city representatives, including Mayor David Condon, and Zehm family attorneys.
The city will pay $720,000 of the settlement. The rest will be paid by the city’s insurance underwriter, American International Group. Under the city’s insurance plan, the city pays the first $1 million in liability litigation. But that includes legal fees the city incurred. The city spent about $280,000, mostly to hire private attorneys.
Several council members thanked the family for settling the dispute out of court.
“This is one step in a healing process,” said Councilwoman Amber Waldref. “While tonight is a really important step that we’re taking, we all know it’s just one, and there are many more that we need to take.”
Besides the cash settlement, the deal requires Condon to write a formal apology and make a recommendation to the Park Board to name a permanent structure in a city park in honor of Zehm. It also requires the police department to provide crisis-intervention training for all Spokane police officers who aren’t scheduled to retire within a year and provides $50,000 for a consultant to help the city implement changes to its use-of-force policy.
Zehm was beaten, shocked and hog-tied by police officers in a north Spokane Zip Trip on March 18, 2006, after he was accused erroneously of theft. He died two days later at a Spokane hospital. The first responding officer, Karl F. Thompson Jr., was convicted by a federal jury in November of using excessive force and lying to investigators about the incident.
“It’s up to us as a council and new administration to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” said Councilman Mike Allen.
City Council President Ben Stuckart pledged to “work as hard as possible” the rest of his term on police reform. But he said the city likely won’t be able to publicly examine some of the specifics of the case until after criminal proceedings are done.
Last week, he said he might propose a council resolution asking the city administration to explain key unanswered questions in the case. One unanswered question is why the city responded to the lawsuit brought by the Zehm family in 2009 by blaming Zehm, even though then-assistant police Chief Jim Nicks had determined that Thompson likely violated police procedure. Stuckart said that city attorneys have explained to him that providing those answers could be seen as interfering with federal criminal investigations.
“I’m a person who wants to know why the city acted the way it did,” Stuckart said just before the settlement vote. “I’ve only been in office for four months so I’ve been frustrated by the process. I want to understand why it happened, but until the ongoing criminal investigations are closed, I don’t think we’re going to be able to get those answers.”
Thompson has not been sentenced, and his attorneys are seeking a new trial after alleging prosecutorial misconduct. Federal prosecutors say those claims are without merit. Attorneys for Spokane police Officers Sandra McIntyre and Tim Moses have confirmed that they entered discussions with federal prosecutors about potential obstruction of justice charges relating to their clients’ testimony about Thompson.
Earl Martin, who leads the city’s Use of Force Commission, said last week that the commission will examine the City Attorney’s Office’s role in dealing with use-of-force cases on June 28. He said it’s unclear if the commission will examine the specific question of why the city blamed Zehm for his death, but it will investigate the policies in place to prevent the kind of conflicts of interest that arose in the city’s handling of the matter.
The commission was created after Thompson’s conviction to examine the city’s policies related to force used by officers.
In a written statement he released after the meeting, Stuckart said the council will work to “address the details of the Otto Zehm case once all criminal investigations have been closed.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.