Do We Need Police Oversight? Ask Spokane 

How important is civilian police oversight?

Otto Zehm wanted a Snickers bar. That's why the 37-year-old janitor stopped by a Spokane, Wash.-area Zip Trip shortly after sunset on March 18, 2006: to buy a snack. As he waited on foot at a drive-up ATM, two 18-year-old girls parked at the machine got nervous about his presence and pulled away, even though one of them had already entered her PIN. As Zehm accessed the ATM, one of the girls called police, worried that he was stealing her money. She also told a dispatcher that Zehm—who was mentally disabled—seemed high. Shortly thereafter, police responded to the "suspicious circumstance."

Zehm was inside the gas station, holding a two-liter bottle of soda, when a Spokane police officer hit him twice with a baton, bringing him to the ground, then fired on him with a Taser. As Zehm crawled away, the officer hit him several more times. A total of eight officers ultimately fell on Zehm, who was Tased again and hog-tied. He died two days later in a local hospital. He hadn't stolen any money, nor were any drugs or alcohol found in his system.

That incident still haunts Spokane, and marked a low point for relations between the community and its police. To help work through the trauma—and ensure civilian oversight of the police—the city of Spokane established its Office of Police Ombudsman in 2008. Then-Boise Ombudsman Pierce Murphy traveled to the Eastern Washington city to brief city council members on police transparency—something he was well respected for, having come from a city where, according to a 2008 report in the Inlander, things had been "even worse" a decade before.

Seven years later, after a string of high-profile police-involved deaths across the country, the role of civilians in overseeing the police has grown in prominence. Meanwhile, in Boise, the city is considering winding down the ombudsman's job from a full- to part-time position. Two stories in this week's paper deal with police oversight: Boise Weekly News Editor George Prentice sifts through the conflicting stories surrounding an officer-involved shooting that took place on Feb. 16. Staff Writer Harrison Berry takes an in-depth look at the past, present and future of Boise's Office of the Community Ombudsman.

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