Spokane Police Admit Inaccurate Report to Paper on Fatal Struggle

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No, the mentally disabled janitor never lunged at a police officer in a convenience store.

Yes, after hitting him with a nightstick, jolting him with a Taser stun gun and hogtying him on the floor, as many as seven officers did keep him too long on his stomach, contrary to police procedures.

Erroneous statements since the death of Otto Zehm, 36, were acknowledged Thursday by Acting Police Chief James Nicks as authorities, under threat of a public records lawsuit, released to The Spokesman-Review a videotape of the struggle and a recording of the 911 call that resulted in police being dispatched to the Zip Trip store.

A third detail also emerged: For the first time, police said a plastic oxygen mask was placed over Zehm’s mouth and nose to prevent him from spitting on the officers as he was lying on his belly.

The mask was never attached to an oxygen tank, Deputy Police Chief Allan Odenthal said, adding that the mask had a “large hole” to allow plenty of airflow.

Nicks did not say why he and other city officials maintained for nearly four months that Zehm “lunged” with a 2-liter plastic soda bottle at the first officer on the scene and that he was properly and promptly turned on his side after being hogtied.

He denied deliberately trying to mislead anyone with his earlier statements.

“Whenever we have something of this magnitude, we do critique it,” Nicks said.

He also said it would be unfair to judge the police response based solely on the images and in the absence of the 911 call, radio dispatches to the responding officers and activity that was partially or totally obscured from view in the silent video.

The video and a recording of the 911 call, released by Spokane County Prosecutor Steven J. Tucker, were posted Friday on the newspaper’s Web site, along with transcripts of the call and of police radio communications.

Tucker has said he hopes to decide next week whether any criminal charges will be filed in with the case.

Until Thursday the videos had been seen only by city officials, investigators and lawyers for Zehm’s mother, although the images were described in documents provided to the newspaper Wednesday — also under threat of a lawsuit.

Zehm was confronted in the store on March 18 after police got a 911 call of a suspicious person and a possible theft at a drive-up automated teller machine outside a bank. Transcripts show dispatchers later determined there had been no theft.

After being subdued, Zehm suddenly stopped breathing. He died two days later.

Odenthal asserted that there was no indication that the mask had anything to do with why Zehm stopped breathing, but Breean Beggs of the Center for Justice, which is representing Zehm’s mother, was skeptical.

“This is a non-medical opinion,” Beggs said. “Based on the structure of the mask and the short amount of time between placing the mask on him and his breathing difficulties, there appears to be a connection.”

In a news conference May 30, Nicks insisted that officers followed proper procedure, tying Zehm’s feet and hands behind his back and promptly turning him onto his side so he could “breathe without any inhibited body weight.”

At the time the police chief said Zehm was on his side “all” or a “majority” of the time, but the video showed him lying mostly on his stomach, a position Medical Examiner Dr. Sally Aiken listed as a contributing factor in his death.

“I made it clear that during the press conference my impression was that he was on his side for a great portion of that time,” Nicks said Thursday, “so my impression obviously wasn’t quite accurate, but there was no intent to mislead or misdirect in any shape or form.”

Nicks said he learned his error about a month after the news conference in May. When asked Thursday what he did to correct the official description of events, he replied: “I’m telling you right now.”

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