Law Enforcement Oversight

Among the goals of our Law Enforcement Oversight Project is to secure credible, independent oversight of police agencies through the establishment of public Ombudsmen or similar positions and/or mechanisms.

Here are a few excerpts from articles about law enforcement cases and issues that we’ve been involved with recently.

Center Files Suit in the Case of Otto Zehm (March 13, 2009)

“The suit is filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Washington and contains two components. The first is the allegation that Officer Thompson and other police officers violated Otto Zehm’s civil rights by, (1) using deadly force upon him when he was only passively resisting an effort to handcuff him, and (2) that deadly force and excessive force was repeatedlyOtto Zehm used against Mr. Zehm in violation of both his civil rights and the Spokane Police Department’s use of force policy. The Spokane County Medical Examiner concluded that the use of force against Mr. Zehm by the officers caused his death.

The second component of the suit charges that the Spokane Police Department, led by then Acting-chief Nicks, engaged in concerted actions after Mr. Zehm’s death that violated Otto’s and his mother’s civil rights both by invading Otto’s privacy and falsely portraying him as the initiator of the March 18, 2006 melee inside a north Spokane convenience store. The complaint alleges that this conduct was purposeful and that its purpose has been to impede and frustrate the rights of Anne Zehm and the Zehm Estate to bring an action, like this one, to be compensated for the violation of rights caused by the unwarranted deadly force and unreasonable seizure inflicted upon Mr. Zehm before he died.

In the Cause of Trent Yohe (July 1, 2009)

“The deputies were confronted with someone experiencing what they described as a seizure,” says Center for Justice attorney Breean Beggs. “Instead of calling for medical personnel, they turned it into a criminal matter which resulted in a struggle and death. But perhaps what’s most disturbing about this case is that it came a year after Otto Zehm was fatally subdued in a very similar encounter by Spokane police. The Sheriff has said publicly that his department didn’t change anything as a result of the Otto Zehm tragedy, even though the city police department undertook special training after Otto’s death to be better prepared to handle suspects with mental disorders. If the county deputies had been provided that training, as they should have, Trent Yohe would likely still be alive.”

Notes for the Medicine Wheels (March 25, 2009)

“The fact that the people inside the room at the N.A.T.I.V.E. center on West Maxwell Avenue didn’t erupt was due, in no small part, to Shonto Pete, the still-young, Native American husband and father who sat between his mother and his wife on the south side of the circle. Pete spoke several times during the meeting but only raised his voice once, and that was when he sang a traditional farewell song to end the gathering. Pete, of course, is very lucky to be alive. He survived being shot in the head two years ago by a drunken, off-duty Spokane police officer who alleged that Pete tried to steal his truck. A superior court jury acquitted Pete of that charge, but twelve days ago, on March 13th, the police officer, Jay Olsen, was acquitted by another Spokane jury of assault and reckless endangerment. Olsen’s acquittal has ignited strong passions from across the city but especially in the Spokane Native American community which, judging from last night’s meeting, is still reeling in shock and disbelief even as its leaders and healers work to direct large sums of fear and frustration in fruitful directions.

In a CFJ video journal, the Center’s Breean Beggs offers a frank assessment of how the June 22, 2009  federal indictment in the Otto Zehm case is affecting public attitudes toward city leaders and Spokane police.

Questions About Tasers, Resources

The following links provide additional background material for the Questions About Tasers feature:


*Lethality of Tasers
*New York Times editorial, “Police and Tasers.”
*Forensic analysis of Tasers
*Law Enforcement Encounters with Developmentally Disabled Persons