Remembering Otto Zehm

Two years ago, Otto Zehm went into a north side convenience store for a bottle of pop and a Snickers bar. In the aftermath of his tragic death, it became utterly clear that Spokane had a lot of work to do to rebuild confidence in its police. It’s time to finish the job.

At 6:26 p.m. on March 18, 2006 Otto Zehm went into a north side convenience store for a bottle of pop and a Snickers bar. He didn’t leave until after he’d been mortally subdued at the hands of Spokane police officers.

For more in the way of statistics you could look broadly at the calendar, at the more than a dozen fatalities of suspects at the hands of Spokane area law enforcement officers over the past two years. But Otto Zehm’s death is a community touchstone. If you want to know what the senseless death of your son, your daughter, your brother, your closest friend, might look like you can see it on the store’s surveillance video. If you want to know what it looks like when your police department–with all of its traditions, expectations, and honored public servants–badly mangles its credibility, then that’s available too, in the way the SPD completely misled the public, the press, and perhaps even itself by repeatedly putting out false information about Otto Zehm and what had happened in the North Division Zip Trip that night.

And it was with this chilling visibility, without a place for hard truths to hide, that Spokane, its new police chief, and a subdued Mayor and city council gave itself permission to consider institutional changes that many thought were long overdue. Consultants were hired, public forums were scheduled.

In those meeting rooms, one could usually find the face of Mary Ann Tripp, the Spokane woman who, a quarter century ago, began to organize a citizen effort to try to bring some semblance of independent oversight to issues of alleged police misconduct. Ms. Tripp’s son had been beaten by Spokane police during an October 1979 arrest, an arrest observed at close hand by a reluctant witness who corroborated the gratuitous brutality involved. It was not an isolated incident. The public demand for more police oversight grew until it eventually took the form of an infrequently meeting Citizen Review Commission.

There were lots of problems with the Citizen Review Commission and they are chronicled, well enough, in reports filed in October 2006 and April 2007 by independent consultants Mike Worley and Sam Pailca respectively. Of the two reports, Pailca’s is the one that focused most intently on external police oversight. Pailca, a lawyer who was just finishing up a seven year assignment as head of the Seattle Police Department’s Office of Professional Accountability, could not have been clearer in her recommendation:

“(T)he City of Spokane [should] disband the Citzens’ Review Commission and create a new office within the executive branch to serve as an ombudsman/monitor of citizen complaints about employees of the Spokane Police Department.”

Late last year the Spokane City Council approved $200,000 in the City’s 2008 budget to fund the office, but recent comments by Spokane Mayor Mary Verner to a Spokesman-Review reporter are disconcerting, at best. In her comments to the newspaper, the Mayor indicated that she may no longer favor the full-time position recommended by Pailca because of the cost of the office. Her comments have not only re-opened the debate but have reawakened longstanding fears that Spokane just can’t bring itself to commit to the police oversight reforms that Boise, Idaho and other U.S. cities have put in place.

For more in the way of statistics you could look broadly at the calender, at the more than a dozen fatalities of suspects at the hands of Spokane area law enforcement officers over that last two years. But Otto Zehm’s death is a community touchstone. If you want to know what the senseless death of your son, your daughter, your brother, your closest friend, might look like you can see it on the store’s surveillance video. If you want to know what it looks like when your police department–with all of its traditions, expectations, and honored public servants–badly mangles its credibility, then that’s available too, in the way the SPD completely misled the public, the press, and perhaps even itself by repeatedly putting out false information about Otto Zehm and what had happened in the North Division Zip Trip that night.

“It really did hurt a lot,” said Mary Ann Tripp when she learned the City might be reneging on its pledge to fully fund the office. “It made me sad. I’m just about to give up, to tell the truth.”

“The question here is not just whether Otto Zehm died in vain,” says Center for Justice attorney Breean Beggs, “but whether diminishing the scope of the new office makes much sense when you look more deeply at what’s at stake for the police and the city’s long-term financial health.”

Beggs’s argument begins with the numbers.

“The monetary value is this,” he says. “A wrongful death finding in Washington usually translates to a public liability of between $300,000 and $2 million in the hands of a jury or in settlement. And that’s only if there’s not a federal civil rights claim involved. If there’s a federal civil rights claim involved, then there’s also the potential for punitive damages that could run well into additional millions of dollars.”

By example, Beggs points to a federal jury verdict earlier this month in Pittsburgh where the family of 12-year-old Michael Ellerbe was awarded $28 million for Ellerbe’s shooting death by Pennsylvania state troopers. A common element in the Ellerbe case and the Zehm case, Beggs noted, is that in both instances there is strong evidence that the police were not truthful about the events leading to the fatalities.

“So my argument on the value of the office is this,” Beggs says. “If you prevent just one wrongful death per year because of the Ombudsman office you’re saving, at a minimum, more than what it costs to fund the office because, remember, the City of Spokane is essentially self-insured when it comes to paying for the kinds of damages or settlements that these cases lead to. Of course the other cost your avoiding here is the substantial cost to the city just to defend these cases.”

CFJ attorney Terri Sloyer makes the same point in pointing to the track of record of the nine year old Office of the Community Ombudsman in Boise. In addition to investigating citizen complaints, the Boise Ombudsman’s office regularly prepares issue specific reports and recommendations to improve police procedures in areas that have ranged from the use of Tasers, to dealing with public intoxication, to dealing with the interaction between police and the city’s homeless population. It is these sort of specific reforms and improvements, the CFJ attorneys insist, that would pay dividends for Spokane, in the future, by preventing deaths and injuries and the lawsuits that ensue from them.

Despite some recent progress in training officers to deal more effectively with people who are mentally ill, Beggs says the overall relationship between Spokane police and the community “is still broken.”

“What the Otto Zehm case did is it brought to light how broken the relationship is between the police and the citizenry,” Beggs says. “And two years later, it’s still broken. The police and the citizens and the city government have taken some steps to repair that relationship, but it isn’t complete yet. The most important step is the fully funded, independent office of police oversight. That’s the number one thing that will help repair the relationship, that will pay for itself, that will begin to restore trust in the police and that will help the police improve their professionalism.”

To the extent that cost remains a factor in the decisions about whether and how to form the Ombudsman office, Beggs says city decision-makers should consider two other issues.

The first is that the City of Spokane can and should look to the Spokane County Sheriff’s office to help fund the Ombudsman office inasmuch as the new office would be very well situated to investigate incidents involving Sheriff’s deputies. Likewise, the offices services could be extended to other municipalities in Spokane County that need independent reviews of police conduct.

The second has to do with the Zehm case itself. Beggs and CFJ continue to work with the Zehm family on the pending wrongful death claim against the City and, Beggs notes, the City has already established a tort claim reserve fund to handle a judgment or settlement in the case.

“From our conversations with the family,” Beggs says, “it is reasonable to expect that the City’s willingness to fund the Ombudsman office on a fulltime basis would be a positive factor in how this case is settled. Establishing the office will make it a lot easier to reach a monetary settlement, and if there is one the City could then use a portion of their tort claim reserve to fund the office.”

One response on “Remembering Otto Zehm

  1. Sunil

    this word cloud? Community is BIG in Essex! Parade and church are biegigs too, though our upcoming 4th of July in Essex celebration is partly responsible for that. With about three dozen posts on our new site, this word

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