Monday, October 26, 2009

Citizens Arrest?

How Pressure for Police Oversight is Mounting at City Hall

From the Center for Justice:

It is now thirty years since Mary Ann Tripp began organizing the first citizen group in Spokane to address the problem of police brutality. Initially, her interest was personal. In 1979, her son had been beaten by officers who'd run him down on foot after he made the youthful mistake of fleeing the scene of a vehicle accident in which he was a passenger. But as Mary Ann collected and filed one story of police abuse after another, the depth of the problem became much clearer to her and others. It wasn't just that the SPD had nurtured a culture where police brutality was tolerated. A culture of avoidance and denial infected City Hall as well.

The Center for Justice is among the local organizations who now walk in Mary Ann's footsteps to try to enact the reforms necessary for Spokane to begin--as CFJ's Chief Catalyst Breean Beggs puts it--"healing the relationship between our community and its police department." Increasingly, it looks as though 2010 will be a pivotal year in this long-running drama. In June, a federal grand jury indicted Spokane police officer Karl Thompson, Jr. in connection with the March 2006 death of Otto Zehm, a mentally disabled janitor who'd been violently subdued by Thompson and other officers in a north Spokane convenience store. But the dimensions of the Zehm story got much broader a few weeks ago when the federal prosecutors filed a motion in federal court. The Justice Department not only complained about the city undermining the government's investigation, but alerted the court that there was an ongoing federal criminal probe into whether others, besides Thompson, had obstructed justice in the case. (Here, we should note, the Center for Justice has separately filed a federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of Otto Zehm's estate against the City of Spokane, Thompson, and several other police officers.) Among other things, the government's September 15th filing exposed a serious rift between Assistant U.S. Attorney Tim Durkin and Spokane Assistant City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi who, for years, has been both praised and criticized for his zealous defense of Spokane police officers.

You can read about the government's unusual September 15th court filing here, and read subsequent stories about the controversy and developing criminal case here and here. You can also download the Justice Department's most recent timeline of the key events in the Otto Zehm case here.

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