Spokane mayor seeks police probe

SPOKANE – Mayor Dennis Hession on Monday ordered an outside review of police conduct in the death of a mentally disabled man and a firehouse sex scandal.

Hession offered no specifics on who would conduct the reviews, but said they would look at police practices, training and communication.

“The citizens of our community deserve such a review, and it is my responsibility to initiate the process immediately,” Hession said, adding he wants a report within six weeks of appointing a reviewer. “The credibility of the police department has been badly compromised.”

Otto Zehm, 36, died two days after being hit with a nightstick, jolted with a Taser gun and hogtied by as many as seven officers inside a convenience store March 18.

Spokane County Medical Examiner Sally Aiken ruled the death a homicide. Lying on his stomach with hands and feet tied behind his back was a contributing factor to Zehm’s death, she ruled.

Videotapes released last week apparently contradicted key police statements about the arrest attempt.

Earlier, two police detectives were briefly suspended after advising a Spokane firefighter to delete digital images of a sexual encounter with a 16-year-old girl in a city firehouse in February.

The decision to allow deletion of the images was challenged by lawyers for the girl in a $1 million “wrongful conduct” claim against the police and fire departments last week.

The officers declined to arrest the firefighter after concluding the encounter was consensual and the girl was over the age of consent.

Firefighter Daniel Ross resigned after being accused of seven counts of “conduct unbecoming an officer” and violating city computer policies.

Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker declined to press criminal charges against Ross.

Hession said the case raised questions about the police department’s credibility, as did the Zehm case.

Under threat of a lawsuit by The Spokesman-Review, Tucker released store surveillance videotapes last week that apparently contradict police versions of the attempt to arrest Zehm.

Acting Chief Jim Nicks originally said Zehm “lunged” at the first officer on the scene and threatened him with a 2-liter plastic bottle. But Nicks later conceded he had given misleading information to the public, based on initial reports from the chaotic scene.

The videotape apparently shows the man retreating with his hands in the air. It also shows him lying on his stomach with his hands and feet bound behind him for most of the time.

Police were called to the convenience store after a reported robbery at a nearby ATM machine. The report later was found to be erroneous.

Tucker is expected to make a decision this week on whether the police use of force to arrest Zehm was appropriate.

In a meeting with the council’s Public Safety Committee on Monday, Nicks said he supports an outside investigation.

“I believe that will be a beneficial result to the city and the police department in particular,” Nicks said.

In addition to the review ordered Monday, Hession said the Spokane Fire Department will conduct an internal review of its response in the Zehm case.

Nicks disclosed last week that paramedics had placed a plastic oxygen mask on Zehm to prevent him from spitting at police. The mask had a small hole in it for an oxygen tube, but was not attached to an oxygen tank.

The FBI is continuing a civil rights review in the Zehm case, Hession said.

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