otto zehm01.jpg
Otto Zehm
UPDATE: Ofc. Karl Thompson has been taken into custody by federal agents to await sentencing for the excessive-use-of-force death of disabled janitor Otto


Otto Zehm Police-Brutality Case Wraps Up in Spokane, Leaving City Changed in its Wake

otto zehm01.jpg
Otto Zehm
UPDATE: Ofc. Karl Thompson has been taken into custody by federal agents to await sentencing for the excessive-use-of-force death of disabled janitor Otto Zehm.

And while being led out of court by federal agents Thompson's fellow officers gave him one last salute, which, given that Zehm's family was standing nearby, might not have been the most appropriate action.

More after the jump.

UPDATE (contd.): The Spokesman-Review reports that while Thompson was being led to jail by U.S. Marshalls someone yelled "present arms" and about three dozen Spokane police officers stood and saluted the convicted officer.

Zehm's family was standing close nearby.

Earlier when the Marshalls had been in the court discussing the plan of taking Thompson into custody many of those same officers had turned their backs to show disrespect.

Jerry Finer, the Zehm family's attorney reacted thus:

"They didn't salute Otto. They didn't grieve Otto," Finer said. "As before, his voice and options have not been taken into account by a significant portion of our law enforcement. Healing starts with recognition."

Spokesman-Review reporter Thomas Clouse wasn't working on the night that mentally-disabled janitor Otto Zehm was beat, crushed and Tasered to death. But he's covered the story in every shape for more than five years since then--including yesterday when a federal jury found the man responsible for Zehm's death, Spokane police officer Karl Thompson, guilty of excessive use of force and lying about what actually happened that night in the Zip Trip convenience store.

Clouse tells Seattle Weekly how Spokane's highest-profile cop case has changed the way the city operates.

"This case brought sweeping changes to the police department," Clouse says. "It was the last time they afforded officers a 'pre interview', it was the last major incident where police department could investigate itself. It's a hot ticket in the mayor's race. It's been extremely important."

Zehm was inside the Spokane convenience store when Ofc. Thompson showed up, having been wrongly told that the man was stealing money from an ATM.

Without provocation (as it would later be proven) Thompson struck Zehm with his baton, knocking him to the ground, then hitting him a total of seven times, Tasering him, hogtying him, sitting on him, and, once multiple back-up officers arrived, fixing his face with a "non-rebreather mask" that choked off his oxygen. Zehm died two days later in a hospital bed.

Ofc. Karl Thompson
As shocking as the man's death was, it was the lying and withholding of information after Zehm's death that led to a the collapse of trust from residents, top police brass stepping down and a federal investigation that would label the entire affair as an "extensive cover-up."

For Spokane residents, Clouse says that the trial has split much of the population.

"It's been very polarizing," he says. "Citizens have always been supportive of police. It's a whole of lot of all or nothing--either you support police completely, or you don't."

The Zehm case bears some strong similarities to the Seattle Police Department's John T. Williams shooting scandal. In both cases the police department released early information that later turned out to be untrue.

With Zehm's death, Spokane police had long claimed that the man "lunged" at Ofc. Thompson with a Pepsi bottle and that prompted the officer to beat him with his nightstick. Later, pressure from journalists, no one more than Clouse, forced the release of separate video of the incident, where no "lunge" was seen and the police chief was forced to admit that he made that part up.

Similarly in Seattle's Williams case, SPD Ofc. Ian Birk even used the same word--"lunged"--in his claim that the frail, old wood carver had left the cop no choice but to shoot him.

Still, while the Zehm case has changed some things about how Spokane police do their jobs--like the Williams case has (sort of) for Seattle--Clouse says he's not convinced the city's attitude has changed all that much.

"The political changes have come the slowest," he says. "The city attorney's office has still has not come back off its original statement that this was all Zehm's fault. It's been a pattern going back decades to fight everything to the bitter end."

Now that Thompson has been convicted criminally, the courts will move on to the $2.9 million civil case that Clouse says the city will likely continue to fight tooth and nail.

The veteran reporter, meanwhile, says he'll be there fighting to get to the truth.

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