Otto Zehm’s death catalyst for Spokane Police changes

Otto Zehm’s death catalyst for Spokane Police changes

It’s been eight years since Otto Zehm’s death and, on Friday, with the release of the Justice Department’s 11-month review of the Spokane Police Department, there is a firm step forward toward meaningful change.

The 100 plus page report begins with Zehm and how his death at the hands of Spokane police highlighted the need for an independent review of policies and training. As much as the police department and its officers would love to move past what happened inside a North Division ZipTrip convenience store in March 2006, Zehm’s death has served as a catalyst for change which is already happening within the police department and, in the long run, will be what’s best for the department and the community it serves.

Friday morning Police Chief Frank Straub began his remarks about the Justice Department’s use of force review by acknowledging Zehm’s death and apologizing to his aunt and uncle, who were seated in the front row of the briefing.

“I want the Zehm family to know from me and our department that A, we’re sorry for what happened, and B I also want you to know that Mr. Zehm did not lose his life in vain, think what has happened since that tragic event,” he said.

Among other things, Straub can point to the 40 hours of training that all police officers have received to help to recognize when they’re dealing with mentally ill people like Zehm, and the new body camera program. Both are changes welcomed by Zehm’s uncle.

“I do see that yeah, and I think this is a very good start to go forward with that, so I hope it continues and I’d like to see that all go the way it is going,” Dale Zehm said.

The review also found that when force was used, particularly non-deadly force, the incident was not well documented or reviewed with a mind for avoiding the same type of incident in the future. It all stressed the need to test and identify officers who may have a short fuse when it comes to their temper. The findings may ruffle some feathers, and certainly mean more work for the department’s leadership, but Mayor David Condon made it clear their jobs depend on it.

“It’s not up for debate. It’s not up for discussion. We will work for the Department of Justice’s COPS program, the police department, the city council and the community to make sure it gets done within the established timelines and implementation process,” he said.

The next deadline for the department is six months from now, when it has to go back to the 42 recommendations in the review and show the Justice Department its implementing these changes.