Spokane tentatively agrees to settle the Otto Zehm case for $1.67 million, police reforms, and an apology to Otto’s mother.
By Tim Connor
One of the more tragic and transforming sagas in Spokane’s modern history appears to have reached its final chapter.
Late this afternoon, reporters were summoned to a hastily arranged press conference on the south plaza outside the Thomas S. Foley Federal Building. There they heard federal District Court Judge Michael J. Hogan announce the successful mediation of the pending federal civil rights lawsuit that the Center for Justice filed against the City of Spokane three years ago.
Under the terms Judge Hogan announced this afternoon, the City will:
• pay $1.67 million to the Zehm estate in lieu of expected civil damages, attorney fees, and other expenses,
•provide an apology to Ann Zehm, Otto’s mother, that will be delivered over the signature of Mayor David Condon,
•agree to spend “something over $200,000” to train its patrol officers in so-called “crisis intervention training” (CIT) that should vastly improve the force’s ability and readiness to engage people with mental illness.
•agree to spend up to $50,000 to pay for a consultant who will assist the Mayor’s recently appointed Use of Force Commission to implement recommendations expected to come later this year,
•agree to submit a request to the City’s Park Board to fund a pavilion in a Spokane park that will be dedicated to the memory of Otto Zehm.”
“Mrs. Zehm has been carrying the weight of this case not because she wanted to, but because she didn’t have a choice about it. And to see the relief in her eyes when she knows she doesn’t have to carry that weight, that she can put it back on the community to do it, that’s wonderful.”–Attorney Breean Beggs about today’s settlement agreement.
Judge Hogan mediated the settlement with help from Idaho attorney Ford Elsaesser. After describing its terms he invited Mayor David Condon to speak.
“This is a long day in coming to our community to bring resolution to this case,” said the Mayor, who was flanked by new City Attorney Nancy Isserlis, interim Police Chief Scott Stephens and and all members of the Spokane City Council. “Today, we not only have finality for our citizens but also for Mrs. Zehm. Truly, we cannot change the past but we can acknowledge our mistakes and move forward with a better future for our community.”
Next to speak was Breen Beggs, the Center for Justice’s former executive director who has continued to represent Ann Zehm and the Zehm family.
“From the very first month after Otto’s death,” Beggs said, “his mother asked me to do two things. First, get the City to agree that what happened to her son was wrong and should not happen again. And secondly to make sure that there were enough changes in policy and training and city attitude that it would be unlikely that any other family in Spokane would go through what she’s had to go through. Today, she was so pleased to hear that the city has taken the first firm steps toward that. And although the Mayor’s letter isn’t complete yet, I’ve read the first draft and its the right kind of tone and shows the kind of leadership he’s shown since taking office.”
The settlement won’t be finalized until the Spokane City Council ratifies it. And, according to City Council President Ben Stuckart, the vote on settlement has already been moved onto the council’s agenda for its next meeting, on May 21st.
In his opening remarks, Judge Hogan tried to assure reporters that the settlement was a done deal because, pending council approval, the agreement calls for both parties to submit questions or issues that arise to the Judge who would resolve them on “summary disposition without possibility of appeal.”
“This really is a monumental step in the struggle Spokane faces with its police department,” said Center for Justice lawyer and executive director Rick Eichstaedt after listening to the announcement. “And while this settlement doesn’t solve all the problems we face it’s certainly a step forward.”
Dale Zehm, Otto’s first cousin, listened from the wings this afternoon.
“We’re looking forward to the changes for the family, and for the City,” Dale said. “This is a start anyway.”
Dale added that Otto’s mom, Ann, was especially pleased with the commitment by the City to work toward a memorial pavilion to honor her son. Although the site of the pavilion is yet to be determined, Dale said he hoped it would be in Mission Park, given Otto’s affection for the park which is located in northeast Spokane, not far from Gonzaga University.
Dale also said he wanted to express his personal gratitude to the people who worked on the mediation agreement over the past two days.
As today’s press event was wrapping up, Beggs talked wistfully but joyfully to a clutch of reporters about what today meant to Ann Zehm.
“Mrs. Zehm has been carrying the weight of this case not because she wanted to, but because she didn’t have a choice about it,” Beggs said. “And to see the relief in her eyes when she knows she doesn’t have to carry that weight, that she can put it back on the community to do it, that’s wonderful.”
If you would like to make a donation to help support the Center’s work on cases like the Zehm case, you can do so online here.