Attorney for City of Spokane Faces Criticism in Handling of Zehm Suit.

The Spokesman-Review  ran a story Thursday raising questions about the way an attorney for the city, Rocky Treppiedi, has gone about defending the lawsuit filed by the relatives of Otto Zehm.    The attorney is defending the city of Spokane from a lawsuit filed by the relatives, while at the same time federal prosecutors are investigating and prosecuting Officer Karl Thompson who was involved in the death of Zehm.  (See earlier related blog post).    The Spokesman-Review reported that Treppiedi has been accused of “gleaning information from police and civilian witnesses called to testify before the federal grand jury and then [feeding] that information to  Thompson….”   And that this occurred even after the Spokane Police Chief imposed a gag order on her employees.   Treppiedi is not a police department employee.  At this time, it is not entirely clear how this was inappropriate.  The city attorneys will have a chance to respond in writing to this allegation, which was apparently brought by an attorney in the criminal case.  The attorney has been accused of taking a heavy-handed approach to defending the city, and the Otto Zehm case raises interesting questions of what a city attorney’s job is when defending allegations of police misconduct.  Creates a legal pleading

While I understand the charges against the police, I don’t understand how the city attorney has come under so much fire.   When government employees mess up, even in a big and public way, it is still the city’s job to try to defend the matter.   After the city was sued, the city filed a formal response to the suit as required by law.  The response took the position that the officers’ response and their use of force was justified by the actions of Otto Zehm on the night in question.  The Spokesman-Review reported on this in a story entitled: “Zehm to blame for fight with officers, city says”.   The story explains how the Treppiedi’s response took the position that any use of force against Zehm was justified because Zehm resisted arrest.  When I read this at the time it seemed like the city attorney was just doing his job.  It is his job to defend the actions taken by the officers on that night in question, and he is really just the messenger.  Attorneys have clients to defend.  For some reasons this seems to be better understood by the public when an attorney is representing a person accused of a crime, rather than a governmental agency in a civil suit.

Spokane City Councilman Bob Apple criticized the way that the city defended the Zehm lawsuit.  (Listen to interview.)  He described the city’s position as an attitude of basically, ‘We’re not responsible and this life [Zehm’s] isn’t worth anything.”   He is correct that the city is denying responsibility, but when I read the entire response the city filed, I did not see the city attorney say or even suggest that Otto Zehm’s life was not worth anything.

I saw a letter to the editor Friday from Karen Dorn Steele, a former reporter for the Spokesman.   She criticizes Treppiedi, and complains about a lot of things he has done in the past that she does not like.  Fair enough.  But then she writes: “A city attorney is supposed to represent the public interest, not a few rogue elements of the police department.”   Unfortunately, the city attorney has to do both.  He has to vigorously take the position that the police acted reasonably, and the other side takes the position that the police did not.  And then the jury makes the decision.  In this case, it would not surprise me if the city is found to be liable for a million dollars or more.   But if the city is to be found liable, the public needs to know that the city did its best to minimize the damage.  You would hope that when a person is harmed by the government that the government would try to resolve this outside of court for fair compensation.  However, these discussions are rarely made public, so it is really hard to say if the city is playing hardball in this case.

Relations between the city attorney and the Spokesman-Review are not helped by the fact that Treppiedi once referred to the paper as the “local fishwrap”.  See story.   The city attorney made this statement in an email to Mayor Jim West when West faced a scandal involving sex with a high school  student.  Treppiedi told West: “Mr. Mayor – hang in there – the local fishwrap is out to sell papers, and you’re out to serve citizens.”  While it is a city attorney’s job to defend the actions by city employees, it is also his or her job to try to prevent any misconduct from happening again, and to minimize damage.    A city attorney’s job is to tell the city bluntly how the employee messed up and to work with city leaders how to prevent the problem from happening again.  But again, this is all out of public view.  I guess in the instance of his email to West, the city attorney may have been better off telling West to resign, or at least saying nothing.

I once had the chance to assist in defending a government from allegations of police misconduct.  The lawyer from the insurance company (who was paid buy the hour) did not want to tell the police the truth about how they messed up, and did not want to make any settlement offer at all.  This made him very popular with the police, but actually did the police a disservice by not helping them learn from their mistake.  I let the insurance company know how I felt.

I hope that the public doesn’t forget about the broader issues of police accountability.  Sometimes there is a highly publicized excessive force case, and people forget about the smaller cases.  Rodney King, for example, was assaulted by the police,  and received a settlement of 3.8 million.  But I am sure there were less sensational cases of police abuse where the victims could not even find an attorney, much less receive compensation.  The public deserves a police ombudsman with sufficient powers to curtail the problem.

On Monday, I did a jury trial in Spokane where a man was accused of assaulting a police officer.   The police officer tazed my client several times.  Under the police guidelines, an officer cannot use the taser unless facing “assaultive” conduct.  I suspected the police alleged that the “assault” occurred in order to justify (after the fact) the amount of force that the police used on him.  The officer testified well and seemed very credible.  The next day an independent witness came forward and stated that, unbeknownst to the officer, she had witnessed the whole incident through  her blinds.  She did not see the defendant assault the officer, and the jury believed her.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR….
Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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