Expert: 'Thompson’s Use Of Force Served No Legitimate Law Enforcement Purpose'
SPOKANE, Wash. - On the third day of Spokane police officer Karl Thompson's trial a use-of-force expert testified that Thompson violated his training by using excessive and lethal force when he beat 36-year-old Otto Zehm with a baton and shocked him with a taser five years ago.
Robert Bragg, a use of force expert for the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, said Thompson violated his training in several ways, including using physical force on Zehm when he perceived no physical threat on the Zip Trip surveillance video. Bragg also said Thompson's "high overhand strikes" with his baton was inconsistent with the Criminal Justice Training Commission's training.
Thompson is accused of violating Zehm's civil rights and lying to investigators. Federal prosecutors argue that Thompson used deadly force by repeatedly striking Zehm in the head with his baton.
On March 18, 2006, Thompson entered a Zip Trip, at 1712 N. Division St., with information that Zehm may have robbed two women in a car using a nearby ATM. That information later proved to be false. Federal prosecutors say Zehm entered the convenience store, which he routinely visited, to buy a soft drink and fast food.
Gritty video from the convenience store security cameras show shortly after Thompson entered the convenience store he confronted Zehm. Thompson insisted Zehm posed a physical threat and used a two-liter diet Pepsi bottle as a weapon. Thompson said he instructed Zehm to drop the bottle several times but said Zehm refused. Prosecutors said Thompson then proceeded to whack Zhem with a baton multiple times.
In court Monday Federal prosecutors asked Bragg, "did you observe any stance of Mr. Otto Zehm that fits the officer's description?"
"No," Bragg responded.
During his testimony the use-of-force expert explained that once officer Thompson entered the convenience store Zehm "backed up into a defensive, surprised motion" and said there didn't appear to be any aggression whatsoever on his part.
Bragg also explained that use of force training is to apply force consistent with the type of resistance "and I did not see that in this case. The video depicts Zehm leaning backwards, therefore, applying physical force such as this in an investigatory stop is outside of the things we teach."
From a tactical perspective, Bragg testified that Thompson's use of a baton "didn't serve a legitimate law enforcement purpose." Bragg said Thompson should have used a different tool to subdue his potential suspect after he struck Zehm seven times – which he concluded was ineffective on Zehm after that many strikes.
"Essentially you're supposed to assess the effectiveness of your force application," Bragg said. "You're always looking to see if what I'm doing is making sense. If I hit him five times and nothing happens, does hitting him five more times make sense?"
Bragg continued,"if this was a mock scene, as we call it at the academy, he would have failed."
The use-of-force expert testimony was in direct contrast to Thompson's recorded interview with now-retired Spokane detective Terry Ferguson where Thompson stated Zehm posed a serious physical threat. On the recording Thompson said Zehm refused his orders to drop the plastic soda bottle, then stood up and took a boxing stance after being hit with a baton and tased.
"It was not a passive stance, it was a very resolute stance. His whole body suggested that it was tensed and prepared to respond either by pushing, throwing or charging me," Thompson was heard saying on the recording. "That's the interpretation that I recognized. That's the snapshot that I have from a lot of experience and training."
On the recording, Ferguson asks Thompson, "Did he hit you?"
"Yes, he hit me," Thompson replied.
Nevertheless, after the confrontation, Thompson insisted that he didn't feel deadly force was needed. "I had deadly force available but I did not perceive this as a deadly threat," Thompson said to Ferguson, adding that he only intended to strike Zehm in the leg and "put him on the ground."
Bragg testified however that he did not see any evidence in the tape that Zehm stood up after being hit with the baton or tased.
In cross-examination defense attorney Stephen Lamberson emphasized that Bragg has never been police officer or made any decisions as a police officer. "You've never made that decision as a law enforcement officer. You've never had to make that decision in the field," Lamberson said.
Lamberson also argued that officers must consider the "totality of the circumstances" at a scene, which means to consider the information Thompson had about Zehm at the time he confronted Zehm inside the Zip Trip.
Thompson had received information from dispatch that Zehm was a possible robbery suspect. For all Thompson knew, Lamberson argued, Zehm could have taken the two little girls inside the Zip Trip hostage and therefore had to act with the information he had available at a possible violent crime scene.
Thompson's attorney also made the point that if an officer anticipates he is about to be hit, that officer doesn't have to wait to be hit, to strike a suspect.
Thompson's trial is taking place in Yakima after a judge ruled media coverage during the last five years could prejudice a jury. The trial is expected to last four to six weeks.
*This web story was filed by KHQ Local News Reporter Chelsea Kopta
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