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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Editorial: City leaders mishandled Zehm case

The friend who sent me a link to this editorial asked: "Where have all the heroes gone? Are there really none left?"

One really is left to wonder.

August 14, 2011
The Spokesman-Review

Risk management is all about dollars, but there are times when leaders must peer above the bottom line to protect and defend a community’s values. The Otto Zehm tragedy is a perfect example.

Back in June 2006, the Zehm family sought an apology and retractions from the City of Spokane after the Police Department held a news conference about the fatal confrontation with the mentally disabled janitor. The family and its attorneys had seen the damning convenience store video that the rest of the public would see in July. Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi replied in a letter that the city stood by its version of events. The city essentially blamed Zehm for the outcome, defended the actions of the officers and chided those who had been “hyper-critical.” The letter includes this line:

“There are many other facts that go into the analysis of the use of force by Officer Thompson, including how and when he used the baton and Taser. In short, Chief Nicks will not, as you request, publicly retract what you characterize as ‘misrepresent- ations’ because they are not misrepresentations.”

Five years later, we learn that Jim Nicks did retract his views when placed under oath in front of a federal grand jury. So, it’s clear that the peddlers of misrepresentations worked for the city. Many still do. To borrow a term from the medical examiner’s report, perhaps they acted in a state of excited delirium when they viewed the video and discovered their initial story was filled with falsehoods.

Whatever the case, nobody in a position of leadership bucked the city’s hyper-defensive stance and stepped forward to represent the truth. Nobody said, “Enough!”

Neither the mayor at the time, Dennis Hession, nor the one who followed, Mary Verner, stood up to the department. Verner even defended Officer Karl Thompson’s actions. Once he got around to watching the damning convenience store video, Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker punted the case to the feds.

Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick was hired after the incident, but she retained Nicks as second in command, where he remains. “You lie, you die” is her mantra. We shall see. Treppiedi remains in the employ of the city, despite his aggressive actions in this case (and others) to confront anyone who would dare challenge the Police Department.

Five years after Zehm’s death nobody has suffered any consequences. Thompson still might. He faces trial in federal court.

To recap, Zehm did not lunge at Thompson, as the public was told. He reacted defensively to an assault in which baton strikes and Tasering were not warranted, according to the acting police chief at the time. He died after being subdued and tied up.

Rather than apologize and face the consequences, the Police Department and the city embarked on an extended masquerade and then wondered why the public demanded an ombudsman with strong oversight powers. Even today, we don’t have that, because police officers won’t drop their resistance to independent investigations.

In the end, taxpayers will pay for this tragedy. In exchange, they ought to at least get assurances from city leaders that trampling truth and justice is no longer an acceptable risk management strategy.

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