It was the salute that shocked Spokane.
It was the salute that shocked Spokane.
About 50 Spokane cops stood and saluted a fellow officer as he left a federal courtroom in custody last month after being convicted of using excessive force in the death of a mentally ill janitor.
That salute was quickly denounced by the mayor and chief of police as insensitive to the victim’s family. And critics saw it as yet another sign that Spokane cops are estranged from the citizens they are sworn to protect.
The Spokane Police Department is under fire on many fronts.
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The outgoing mayor is asking the federal government to investigate the practices of the department. Efforts to create a citizen ombudsman to hear complaints against police have been stonewalled. Some residents have even suggested the department should be dissolved and merged with the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.
There are also signs that the U.S. Department of Justice is conducting a civil rights investigation of the department, although Justice officials have declined to comment.
“This is not just a bad apple problem,” said Liz Moore of the Peace and Justice Action League, which is critical of police. “This is a rotten apple barrel problem.”
All the bad blood is having an impact.
“Officers who feel they are risking their lives are not getting the respect they deserve, and citizens don’t feel safe to call the police,” said Breean Beggs, an attorney who is suing the city on behalf of the family of janitor Otto Zehm, who was killed by police.
Police officers killed three people in Spokane in 2010 while sheriff’s deputies killed two. In 2009, the last full year available, only 10 people died in arrest-related incidents at the hands of law enforcement officers in Washington, according to a Justice Department report.
The most notorious police death in Spokane occurred in 2006, when Zehm, a schizophrenic, died at the hands of a group of officers in a convenience store. Zehm, who had committed no crime, was beaten, shot with a Taser, hog-tied and sat on until he passed out and died two days later without regaining consciousness.
According to court records, Zehm’s final words were, “All I wanted was a Snicker’s bar.”
After what federal prosecutors described as five years of cover ups by local officials, a federal jury in November convicted Officer Karl Thompson for use of excessive force and lying about it to investigators.
It was at a post-conviction hearing where Thompson’s freedom was revoked that the 50 officers stood at attention and saluted him.
“I was shocked by their willingness to ignore the fact that 12 jurors … found what Officer Thompson did was a criminal act,” said attorney Jeffrey Finer, who also represents the Zehm family in their lawsuit against the city.
Mayor Mary Verner and police chief Anne Kirkpatrick issued a joint statement saying the salute does not reflect the city’s values.
“It clearly was insensitive to the friends and family of Otto Zehm, and for that, we apologize,” the statement said.
Tom Rice, an assistant U.S. attorney in Spokane, has declined to say if the investigation into police corruption in the Zehm coverup is continuing. But the U.S. Attorney’s Office has in press releases described the police actions as “an extensive cover up,” which could indicate additional officers were involved, with the possibility of more indictments.
“I can’t confirm or deny that,” Rice said.
Meanwhile, a request by Verner for the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to review the practices of the police department has not been acted on yet, Rice said.
The Spokane Police Guild has issued a statement saying it welcomes outside scrutiny of the department.
“The guild and the employees it represents have a proven track record of supporting transparency, accountability, and oversight for the SPD,” the guild said in a press release. “The employees represented by the guild … want the citizens of Spokane to be proud of their police department.
Guild officials did not reply to a request from The Associated Press for an interview.
Verner’s defeat in the November mayoral election was partly blamed on her failure to push hard for charges against police officers in Zehm’s death. Mayor-elect David Condon criticized Verner’s actions and called for greater police oversight. Condon takes office in January.
“The city of Spokane has mishandled the Otto Zehm case from the very beginning,” Condon said during the campaign. “The indictment of a Spokane police officer by a federal grand jury was an indictment of Spokane’s city government itself.”
Some residents appear to be be fed up.
Verner was defeated in November after just one term in office. Kirkpatrick has resigned as police chief. And a recall effort has been launched against county prosecutor Steve Tucker over his refusal to bring charges against police officers in many of the violent incidents.
After Zehm died, there was a “well-planned and blatant cover-up by public officials of a police-involved homicide,'” recall organizer Shannon Sullivan contended. Tucker should have led an investigation into the death, rather than relying on federal prosecutors to pursue the case, she said.
Tucker said the recall petition is filled with “rumors and hearsay,'” and there was no evidence of a cover-up when the FBI investigation began.
Thompson, 64, a 40-year police veteran, faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced Jan. 27.