By Ruth Bayang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Shot in the back and killed, just hours before his high school graduation.
An outside review of the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO)’s handling of the Tommy Le shooting investigation said it found “serious gaps.”
Le, 20, was shot and killed by a King County deputy in 2017.
“I miss my son so much,” Le’s mother Dien Ho said through a translator at Sept. 2 news conference at ACRS. “He was such a good boy and never caused any trouble.”
“It’s been a long three years and a half for our family,” said Hoai Le, the victim’s father. “A piece of my heart is gone.”
Deputy Cesar Molina said he believed that Le was armed with a deadly weapon and that Le had already attacked someone with a knife. Turns out that Le had only a plastic pen.
Jeff Campiche, an attorney representing Le’s family, said a 2018 review board’s Use of Force Report was missing key forensic evidence, including the fact that Le was shot twice in the back.
The findings of a new review commissioned by Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) and conducted by California-based OIR Group were released on Sept. 2, and echoes Campiche’s thoughts.
Report author Mike Gennaco said what concerns him the most is that KCSO stated publicly that even if deputies knew Le was holding a pen, the incident still might have ended in deadly force.
Gennaco said Le was not moving towards deputies and the fatal rounds fired were in Le’s back. The autopsy report described Le as 5 feet 4 inches and 123 pounds, and each of the three on-scene deputies was considerably larger in height and weight.
The OIR also found that the deputy who shot Le was not interviewed until five weeks later, which is too long in Gennaco’s opinion. The report also criticized KCSO about its “obsession with whether Le had a knife when he aggressed the civilians” and that it “extended to KCSO’s public statements about the incident.”
OLEO said, “[KCSO] went to extraordinary measures… to advance the theory the Le had a knife at some point in the encounter… In subsequent press releases, [KCSO] included pictures of knives taken from Le’s home that were never connected to Le on the day of the incident.”
King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht rejected OIR’s stance that KCSO is unresponsive and uninterested in evaluating processes and seeking improvement. In a Sept. 2 news conference, she said the OIR report reflects outdated policy.
The incident took place under the former sheriff, John Urquhart, and Johanknecht said KCSO “has made a number of improvements in policy and process” since she took office in 2018.
Johanknecht did say she “fully understands how certain decisions about the release, or omission, of information to the media just after the shooting in 2017 undermined public trust. This administration cannot explain nor answer why those decisions were made by the previous sheriff, we can and do apologize for our own lapses in public information sharing.”
Campiche said the Use of Force Report was released under Johanknecht’s watch and accused KCSO of a “cover-up.”
“Finally, the truth of what really happened has come out,” said Le’s aunt, Xuyen Le. She said the family is grateful to OLEO and that they will continue to fight for justice. Le’s family has filed a civil-rights lawsuit against King County, Executive Dow Constantine, and Urquhart.
The OIR Group said it was not given the opportunity to talk with KCSO personnel responsible for the investigation and review of the incident. It was advised that the reason was the “fear of compromising” KCSO’s position in the ongoing litigation.
Another issue with KCSO’s review, OIR found, was the lack of a determination regarding the criminality of the shooting. It wrote, “In our twenty years of experience reviewing officer-involved shootings, this is the first occasion we have encountered in which there has been no formal review of the deadly force’s legality.”
It goes on to say, “King County must have a process in place so that when a peace officer in the County shoots and injures or kills a member of the public, there is a prompt determination about the criminal legality of the use of deadly force.”
OLEO Director Deborah Jacobs hopes this new review can serve as a turning point.
Ruth can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.