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Thompson sentence shocks Spokane Police

By Jeff Humphrey, KXLY4 Reporter , jeffhu@kxly.com
Published On: Nov 16 2012 01:19:08 PM CST
Updated On: Nov 16 2012 08:42:46 PM CST
Thompson Judgment Day
SEATTLE -

As former Spokane police officer Karl Thompson spent his first full day behind bars in a federal detention center near Seattle, members of the Spokane Police Department are troubled by the former officer's 51-month sentence.

Because of his longevity but also Thompson's confident, charismatic presence, there are dozens of police officers who looked up to him almost like a father figure. Now he's beginning his prison sentence, a prospect that many officers find very unsettling.

Thompson walked into court Thursday facing a recommended two-year prison sentence, but before the day-long hearing was over, federal prosecutors successfully doubled that sentence, much to the satisfaction of Otto Zehm's family.

"Well I'm pleased with the judge's decision. I am just glad that somebody is finally accountable for my cousin's death," Dale Zehm, Otto Zehm's cousin, said.

The Zehm family said when Thompson's trial started more than a year ago all they were hoping for was the truth.  Federal prosecutors feel the convictions and tough sentence are a deterrent to future abuses of power.

"When police officers abuse those in their custody and use their badge as a license to cover up unlawful or excessive force as the defendant did in this case they stop working for enforcement and start working against it," Assistant U.S. Attorney Victor Boutros said.

Prosecutors hope Thompson's case shows the public that laws are equally enforced in Spokane, but that message was almost lost when the court considered allowing Thompson to remain free pending his appeal. It was a motion that Judge Fred Van Sickle rejected.

"I think the community ought to take faith and confidence that the rules are applied to all of us the same way, and I think that is very, very important, and I think that's one of the most important decisions the judge made today and we wholeheartedly agree with it," U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby said.

Thompson's sentence jolted the police department.

While some people thought Thompson deserved a life sentence, he was never accused of killing Otto Zehm and so police knew he would a face a punishment measured in years not decades. But he received more time than many of them expected.

The concern was so much that Police Chief Frank Straub attended roll calls to ask officers not to let Thompson's plight distract them from their duties.

"There were an awful lot of good things in Karl Thompson's life prior to this incident," Straub said.

One thing that happened in the wake of Otto Zehm's death was the argument for increased police oversight was strengthened.

"I think we need civilian oversight, I think we need a strong ombudsman. I would support the ombudsman having independent investigative authority," Chief Straub said.

Still, there is concern among the rank and file on the force that one of their own is now a convicted felon facing a four-year prison sentence.

"We have a good number of officers who were trained by Officer Thompson and so yeah it hurts. It hurts really bad."

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