He’d never gotten into a fight. His teachers liked him. He was a good kid.
That’s how Dieu Ho described her son, Tommy Le, the 20-year-old Vietnamese American student who was fatally shot by a King County sheriff’s deputy last month.
Le’s older brother, Quoc Nguyen, recalled that he and Tommy went suit shopping two weeks before the police killing. Le had planned to wear the suit at Nguyen’s upcoming wedding.
“It’s unfortunate we had to use that suit for his funeral,” Ngyuen said. “He was a kind, sweet kid and he had plans for the future. He wanted to make a positive change in this world.” Hours before he died on June 13, Le was set to graduate from an alternative high school in South Seattle. He had recently finished reading "Faust" and "The Count of Monte Cristo."
More than 100 people gathered at a forum in Mount Baker Wednesday evening to raise and answer questions about Le’s death. Members of the audience, addressing a panel of elected officials, challenged the official police narrative of Le’s death, asked why officers weren’t equipped with body cameras, and questioned why King County officials first reported that witnesses said Le brandished a knife when the shots went off, before later clarifying that he only had a pen.
King County Sheriff Urquhart, who is running for re-election, said he plans to ask the FBI to conduct its own investigation of the shooting. He also stated that police departments should not investigate officer-involved shootings within their own ranks.
Urquhart disputed that Le did not “threaten” to hurt anyone, repeating the department’s narrative that Le attacked two people with a knife prior to three deputies arriving on the scene.
On June 14, the day after the shooting, the King County Sheriff’s Department reported that three deputies responded to a call from Burien after a homeowner fired warning shots to defend against Le, who allegedly chased him with a “knife or some sort of sharp object in his hand.”
The department claimed that after deputies arrived on the scene, they ordered Le to drop the item he carried. Le did not drop the item, the department claimed, and began advancing towards the deputies. Two deputies deployed their Tasers to no effect. One of them, Cesar Molina, shot Le, killing him.
Nine days later, the department updated its official story to clarify that Le held a pen, not a knife, when he died. Urquhart said during the forum that the department believes Le originally attacked the homeowner with a knife, but returned to his home to put the weapon away as officers arrived on the scene. Le’s home is 10 houses down from the homeowner he allegedly attacked, Urquhart said.
“He didn’t have the weapon,” Jeffery Campiche, an attorney representing Le’s family, told The Stranger after the forum. “There was no real harm to anyone.” In addition to representing Le’s family during an upcoming inquest hearing, Campiche said he also plans to file a federal civil rights lawsuit over the shooting.
Urquhart also addressed why the department does not have body cameras, saying they are “too expensive.” He asked the King County Executive as well as the county council for funding to equip officers with the technology.
Deborah Jacobs, director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, the King County body established to provide community-based oversight for the sheriff’s department, said that body cameras aren’t a panacea for police accountability. She urged the crowd to “google New York Times, body cameras” to get an idea of the equipment’s limits.
Bob Hasegawa, a state senator currently running for mayor of Seattle, addressed a failed initiative that would have changed language in the state’s police accountability law, deemed by some the most restrictive in the nation, lowering the bar to prosecute officers who kill. Currently, officers who use deadly force get “de-facto immunity” from prosecution unless they acted with “with malice and without a good faith belief."
A new initiative, I-940, would also remove the “malice” clause from state law, as well as mandate mental health and de-escalation training.
During a period allotted for questions and comments from the public, a man who said he served for 14 years as a police officer in the South Vietnamese army spoke at length through a translator. The room fell silent as he spoke.
“[As] police officers, our job is to protect the citizens regardless of who they are, in accordance with the law. We cannot see the community as a battlefield,” the man said. “Aim at the sky. Shoot at someone’s leg to immobilize them. But resist every temptation in yourself to shoot and kill because it will have repercussions for the rest of your life.”