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Monday, November 18, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Mother of Otto Zehm leaves legacy of police reform after her death

UPDATED: Sat., March 2, 2019

In this 2012 photo, Anna Zehm, who also went by Ann, reaches out to touch a plaque at Mission Park in Spokane. The plague was dedicated to the memory of her son, Otto Zehm, who died in 2006 following a confrontation with Spokane Police. The death eventually led to a $1.67 million settlement with the city, a criminal conviction of Officer Karl F. Thompson, Jr. and several reforms. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
In this 2012 photo, Anna Zehm, who also went by Ann, reaches out to touch a plaque at Mission Park in Spokane. The plague was dedicated to the memory of her son, Otto Zehm, who died in 2006 following a confrontation with Spokane Police. The death eventually led to a $1.67 million settlement with the city, a criminal conviction of Officer Karl F. Thompson, Jr. and several reforms. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Anna A. Zehm never sought exposure. But her fierce crusade for justice following the unlawful arrest, beating and death of her son, Otto, became a yearslong public campaign for better police training in Spokane.

Just as she lived, Anna Zehm, who also went by Ann, died quietly on Jan. 12. She was 90.

“She was deeply devoted to her son, whose devotion was reflected back,” attorney Jeffry Finer said.

Finer helped represent the estate of Otto Zehm, 36, who died on March 20, 2006, after suffering several baton strikes to the head and shocks with a Taser during a confrontation with Spokane police even though it turned out Zehm had committed no crime.

Zehm was a powerfully built man with long red hair who would sing songs as he mopped and vacuumed the floors at Fairchild Air Force Base. After his death, a friend described how when he disagreed with Ann, they would say “Ha” to each other until both began laughing.

Otto “visited her daily and his death made her inconsolable,” Finer said. “She had hoped to write a book about him in tribute and I know she wanted people to have positive memories about her son.”

Anna Zehm remained out of the spotlight as attorneys took her fight to federal court where they filed a civil suit in an effort to make Spokane police answer for the unprovoked attack on her son. The case eventually was settled for $1.67 million.

A key part of the settlement included paying for further training of officers, said City Councilman Breean Beggs, who represented the family in the successful civil suit.

“Her courage in bringing that case led to substantial reforms in this city,” Beggs said of Anna Zehm. “Still today, everybody knows that case. When you look at police approval ratings, they are up from 50 to 80-some percent. You can chalk that up to reforms that she negotiated.”

After the civil suit was filed, a jury convicted former Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. of using excessive force on Otto Zehm and lying to investigators as part of a cover-up.

Otto Zehm “was a hardworking but vulnerable adult,” Beggs said. “I’ve had countless people come up to thank me and her for standing up to them because they don’t want to live in fear when their family members are out around town.”

Anna Zehm had suffered health problems for years.

“Once the case was over, she had her privacy,” Beggs said. “She moved to a new location. And she had a lot of art projects. She was a lifelong artist.”

According to her obituary, memorial contributions can be made in Anna’s name to Horizon Hospice of Spokane or to the Otto Zehm Community Reconciliation Fund.

That fund will be managed by the Innovia Foundation to provide funds for those who suffer abuse at the hands of police, especially those with “mental or physical disabilities.”

The fund also will promote law enforcement reforms and provide community education regarding “best practices for law enforcement agencies” while interacting with the mentally and physically disabled.

“She wanted that work to go on beyond her life,” Beggs said.

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