Officer Thompson’s New Beat

As Police Chief Ann Kirkpatrick confirms she is looking for other jobs, an internal memo reveals that indicted Spokane Police Officer Karl Thompson, Jr., now has “lead” training role for “high risk” incidents. Memo also discloses public survey indicating shifts in public attitudes toward Spokane police over past decade.

By Bill Morlin

The officer accused of two federal felonies in the 2006 death of Otto Zehm has a new assignment with the Spokane Police Department.

Karl F. Thompson, Jr., is now in charge of producing daily training bulletins–helping the police department’s 280 officers better respond to “high-risk liability incidents,” according to a department internal memo. The two halves of the memo can be downloaded here, and here.

Thompson is accused of violating Zehm’s civil rights and later lying about details of the violent altercation in a Spokane convenience store in March 2006. It was this encounter that led Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick to institute new “better practices” for the department, apparently setting the stage for the job ultimately given to Thompson.

“Giving him this job is almost like ratifying his conduct.”–Civil rights attorney Richard Rosenstock.

The same police department memo shows results of a public opinion poll conducted by Whitworth University, showing “perceptions of Spokane police officers” in such categories as “intimidating, courteous and fair” apparently have grown more negative in the past decade. There were, meanwhile, modest improvements in public perceptions about how officers treat citizens equally and show concern or respect.

“The Whitworth poll further documents the need to heal a broken relationship between the citizens and the peace officers they employ,” said Breean Beggs, chief catalyst for the Center for Justice, which works to improve police-public relationships. Beggs and the Center represent Otto Zehm’s estate in a pending federal civil suit against the City of Spokane, Thompson, and seven other Spokane police officers.

“Hopefully,” Beggs added, “this data will motivate the city to create a process of reconciliation that will meet the needs of everyday people and the officers so that we can work in partnership to solve community problems.”

Apparently, neither the Spokane City Council nor its Public Safety Committee have been briefed about either the public opinion poll or Thompson’s new department assignment while he awaits his criminal trial in U.S. District Court.

City councilman and public safety committee member Bob Apple was quick to react.

“Oh, gawd!’’ he said on Monday. “That’s pretty piss-poor. Getting the guy who’s charged with doing it wrong, and now he’s telling others how to do their job.”

Thompson, who makes $73,000 a year, now oversees the department’s new Lexipol Daily Training Bulletins. He sat in the chief’s conference room and briefed senior police commanders about the new system at a private meeting he had with them on Sept. 16, the memo says.

The city paid Lexipol $5,500 on Oct. 1 for a one-year “law enforcement policy manual update subscription,” which includes 24-hour access to the company’s “Knowledge Management System,” according to city spokeswoman Marlene Feist. She did not immediately provide prior city expenditures with Lexipol.

The police department developed the new daily briefing system for its officers under a model provided by the private firm based in Aliso Viejo, Calif.

Dan Merkle, Lexipol’s chief executive officer, did not immediately return a telephone call seeking his opinion about the propriety of a police officer under federal indictment playing an instrumental role in producing daily training bulletins under his company’s banner. Richard Rosenstock, a New Mexico civil rights attorney who has written extensively about police misconduct, said he was surprised that Thompson would be given such a job assignment while facing federal charges bringing into question his own use-of-force conduct.

“Giving him this job is almost like ratifying his conduct,” said Rosenstock, who is familar with the Zehm case and has seen the convenience store video. Months ago, he said he did some consulting work on the civil case with the Center for Justice, but is no longer involved.

“For him to be giving advice to other officers about high-risk incidents and use-of-force, I’d be pretty concerned and amazed,” Rosenstock said.  “The city, I believe, is quite remiss in placing somebody in a position like that.”

Kirkpatrick, who became Spokane’s Top Cop just months after the Zehm death, sought out Lexipol as she attempted to bring reforms and changes to the police department, including an overhaul of its policy and procedures manual.
The Chief said it was the decision of City Administrator Ted Danek to keep Thompson on the payroll, working for the police department, “and I supported that decision.”

Kirkpatrick said the decision was based, in part, on two recent cases involving other police officers who were placed on administrative leave when charged with felonies. When both those officers were later acquitted by juries, the city had to issue them back pay, plus interest. While Thompson remains working at the police department, Kirkpatrick said he no longer has a badge, a gun, or arrest powers and that he is working in the department’s planning unit.

When asked about her status, Kirkpatrick confirmed widely circulated rumors that she has been looking for a job elsewhere, including a recent opening in San Francisco.

The Chief said she was aware of the Whitworth poll but that she hasn’t had time to analyze its findings. She said she was unable to attend her command staff meeting last month where Thompson told his senior commanders the new training bulletin “should improve our response and documentation to high-risk liability incidents and protect officers.”

The memo reports that Thompson described the new daily training procedure as “user-friendly.”

“Support staff is very supportive of his efforts, (and) he is very impressed with what he has seen so far,” the memo says. Most Spokane police officers, including a sergeant recently arrested on suspicion of drunk driving, are usually placed “administrative leave,” in a few rare instances without pay, while pending criminal charges are adjudicated.
Thompson was working patrol on March 18, 2006, when he went to a North Division convenience store, responding to what turned out to be an erroneous report about a possible drug-crazed robbery suspect who had been seen approaching a bank’s ATM machine.

Zehm, who worked as a janitor in military and government buildings, in fact, had an account at that bank and used its cash machine on a regular basis, it was later disclosed. After leaving the bank, Zehm walked to the nearby convenience store, apparently to buy a soda and a candy bar.

Moments later, Thompson entered the store by himself and, in less than 30 seconds, the store’s surveillance video indicates, he struck the mentally disabled janitor at least six times as Zehm held a plastic soda bottle to defend himself.

After Zehm was jolted with police Tasers and hog-tied on the floor with labored breathing, a plastic oxygen mask was strapped to his face as an inappropriate anti-spitting device. He soon lapsed into unconsciousness and died two days later.

The Spokane County medical examiner ruled Zehm’s death a homicide.Officer Karl Thompson, baton raised, in a frame from the convenience store security video the night of the fateful altercation with Otto Zehm.
Four video cameras in the convenience store captured the incident, but senior police commanders didn’t immediately release clear digital images to the public and news media.

Federal prosecutors, in a recently filed court document, contend former Deputy Police Chief Al Odenthal “spliced off” two of the four camera angles, thus withholding portions of the surveillance tape from the public, at a time Acting Police Chief Jim Nicks was contending Zehm “lunged” at the officer. The video tapes show Zehm did not lunge at Thompson.

Thompson was indicted on June 21 by a federal grand jury that alleges the 61-year-old police officer violated Zehm’s civil rights. The indictment is based on the videotape and forensic evidence suggesting Thompson used unreasonable force that, according to federal prosecutors, included striking Zehm in the head with a police baton.

The second count accuses Thompson of “making a false statement” about the incident during a follow-up investigative interview by Spokane police detective Terry Ferguson.

Federal investigators had to use a grand jury subpoena to get a copy of the Spokane Police Department investigative reports of the Zehm incident, and the department still hasn’t conduct its own internal affairs investigation, sources say.

Meanwhile, senior police commanders have yet to publicly release results of the poll they asked Whitworth University to conduct last spring.

When first contacted, Dr. Noelle Wiersma, chairman of the university’s psychology department, said she would have to get permission from the Spokane Police Department before discussing the poll results. A day later, she agreed to discuss the results after being told they’d been obtained.

Wiersma presented the poll results to police commanders at the Sept. 16 senior staff meeting, using a PowerPoint presentation. She is hopeful, she said, the companion written report, with more statistical data and methodology information, will be completed by the end of October.

Students from Whitworth’s psychology and political science departments conducted the random telephone poll of only North Side residents, using standardized questionnaires and computers to analyze the results, Wiersma said.

Only 1-in-7 people picking up their phone where willing to answer the 55 questions about the Spokane Police Department posed on the 5-page questionnaire, re-written but patterned after a similar poll done of Spokane residents by Washington State University in 1999, the university professor said. Comparison of responses to common topics in 1999 & 2009 surveys, extracted from the SPD memo.

Ultimately, the Whitworth students ended up with 114 completed surveys, which Wiersma said is statistically valid for such polling.

In 1999, 64.2 percent of Spokane’s citizens thought city police officers were courteous; 59.2 percent thought they were fair and 54.3 percent said they were honest.

This year, 55.8 percent of responding citizens said city officers were courteous; 54 percent thought they were fair and 52.2 percent said they were honest.

A decade ago, 22 percent of the citizens questioned about their perception of police viewed them as intimidating. This year, 34.2 percent of those responding thought Spokane police are intimidating.

But Wiersma cautioned about drawing straight-line comparisons between the 1999 poll and the one just completed.
“The psychometric properties of the instrument can vary,” the Whitworth psychologist said, explaining that lead-in topics and the context of the questions about public perceptions can skew responses.

Asked if she believed the poll results would be a worthwhile tool in selecting a jury in a criminal trial of a Spokane police officer, Wiersma said, “I really do not have an opinion on that matter.”

“I can’t really tell people what to do with the data,’’ she said.

Apple said he was not surprised that North Side residents, who he represents, were somewhat negative in their perception of their police force.

“It reflects what the constituents are telling me almost every day,’’ the city council member and public safety committee member said. “The image of the police department has gotten much, much worse.”

Contributor Bill Morlin is a national award-winning investigative reporter who specializes in law enforcement issues. He lives in Spokane and can be reached at [email protected]
Update 1/08/09

We received the following statement from Chief Kirkpatrick this morning, in response to yesterday’s story:

———- Forwarded message ———-
From: DeRuwe, Jennifer <[email protected]>
Date: Wed, Oct 7, 2009 at 8:04 PM
Subject: Chief Kirkpatrick’s response to Bill Morlin’s article.
To: [email protected], [email protected]
Cc: “Kirkpatrick, Anne” <[email protected]>

The following is Chief Kirkpatrick’s response to Bill’s article.  This was sent to all media outlets as well.  We would appreciate if you could post her response to the article on your website.

Bill Morlin wrote an exclusive article for the Center of Justice’s website, which was published today.  The title of the article is “Despite Being Criminally Indicted in Zehm Case, Officer Karl Thompson Lands a “Lead” Training Role for Spokane Police.  Mr. Morlin quoted me several times throughout the article and I would like to put those quotes in the correct context for you.

There has been a lot of discussion about the Seattle Police Chief position and whether or not I have applied.  The job is NOT OPEN; thus you cannot apply for a job that is not open.  Mr. Morlin asked me about the opening for San Francisco Chief of Police.  I was recruited for that position and did apply.  I was not selected.  The person selected was the former Chief of Police of Mesa, Arizona, and I understand that he had been the number 2 ranked officer in the Los Angeles Police Department before he became the Chief of Police of Mesa. San Francisco is a world class City, it has 3,000 employees in the department, and the salary was around $280,000. I was honored to be recruited and so, yes, I applied.

Now, am I “looking” for a new job?  The reality is that there are approximately 800,000 law enforcement officers in our entire country and only 212 of those are women police chiefs. Of the 212 there are only 3 women who are Chiefs in a Major City – Portland, Washington DC and Orlando. There are only 57 or 56 major cities (as recognized by the IACP) and Spokane is not one of them.

So the bottom line is that I am recruited for almost every opening in the country because I am a minority and every recruiter wants a minority in the application pool. I would love to be judged on my abilities as a leader, but, nevertheless, the reality is that I am a minority so I am recruited for everything.

That is not the same as “looking” for a new job.

Now, let me try to un-spin the spin in the article. Karl Thompson does not train or write the policy. The policy was written by a company called Lexipol and reflects “Best Police Practices” in the country. So, the policy is in place with only a few individual policies that have to be negotiated with the Guild. Negotiations are going on right now.

Because Lexipol recommends policies that are “Best Practices” in our country, we had to work with Lexipol when their “Best Pactices” did not apply in our state.  For example, what is legal in one state is not legal in our state. A simple illustration is the “one-party consent rule”. In California, only one party has to give consent to be recorded so people can be recorded without their knowledge in California. That is not so in the State of Washington. It is illegal (with some exceptions) to be recorded without your knowledge. So a policy on what is the “Best Practice” for recording people that applies in California had to be modified for our policy manual to meet our State law.

So how does this fit in with Karl’s assignment? Karl Thompson has been assigned to the Police Planning office.  This position is a non-commissioned position with no police authority.  Karl has been assigned to review the training module we purchased from Lexipol.

What is the training module? The training Module is a Daily Training Bulletin that Lexipol sends out to all its clients. Remember, Lexipol is writing policy that reflects “Best Practices” in the country. Not everything will apply in our State.  That Bulletin showcases a policy for that day. The goal is that the Training Bulletin reflects the Policy Manual and is to be reviewed daily at role calls. In essence, every day becomes a training day on the new policy for the department.

That Daily Training Manual is basically a boiler plate policy that is sent out to all Lexipol’s clients around the country. So the Bulletin has to be reviewed by the individual agencies in their perspective states to make sure that it is in compliance with their existing new Lexipol policy manual. That is Karl’s job. To review the Training Bulletin to make sure it matches our policy. The key word here is match the policy. He has no authority to change the policy. Then he forwards it electronically. The entire department is currently having three hour in-service training on the entire new policy manual. So there are many eyes overseeing that the Daily Training Bulletin matches the policy manual.

Remember, facts not in context do not lead to truth.  Chief K

Officer Jennifer DeRuwe
Spokane Police Dept PIO
(509) 625-4068
(509) 209-7178 cell

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