Collaborative Reform in Spokane, Washington: A Case Study and Its Implications for Police Reform

In March 2006, Spokane, Washington, police officer Karl Thompson responded to a robbery call at an ATM. Arriving in the area, Officer Thompson observed an individual who met the suspect’s description enter a convenience store, and he followed the individual, Otto Zehm, into the store. Officer Thompson engaged Mr. Zehm, who was unarmed, using force—baton strikes and Taser charges—during the encounter. Other responding officers used body weight and control techniques to arrest Mr. Zehm, who died less than two days after the incident. The Spokane County medical examiner ruled that Mr. Zehm’s death was a homicide.1

The medical examiner’s ruling that Mr. Zehm’s death was a homicide, paired with the lack of transparency and accountability regarding the police department’s investigation of the incident, led to community unrest, protests, and calls for a federal investigation and police oversight. Three years later (2009), Officer Thompson was indicted by a federal grand jury and members of Mr. Zehm’s family filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the City of Spokane and the nine police officers involved in the incident. In 2011, Officer Thompson was found guilty of violating Mr. Zehm’s civil rights.