Two weeks ago, a group of 12 community organizations* wrote to Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht calling her department’s internal investigation of the shooting of Tommy Le an "effort to control the narrative to defend the Deputies and blame Tommy Le for his own death..."
"We see no reason why this report which would customarily be issued following the inquest, was released, if not as an attempt to continue to control a misleading and unjust narrative," the community groups wrote.
The county's internal investigation of the shooting cleared the two cops of any wrongdoing. The report did not include the county's own autopsy of the 20-year-old Le, which showed that he was shot in the back and in the hand by Deputy Cesar Molina. The community groups claim that these gaps in evidence are part of a clear effort by the Sheriff's office.
"From the time of Tommy Le’s death, the Sheriff’s office has at best obfuscated the circumstances of his death, and at worst, misled the public about how it transpired," the groups wrote in their letter.
The county's initial reports from the June 2017 incident described Le as "knife-wielding man" that was charging at officers when they fired on him. But no knife was found at the scene, instead only an ink pen was recovered near Le's dead body.
The community groups raised these issues in their letter to Johanknecht and asked her to direct the county's police oversight office to investigate the internal review. Johanknecht did not respond to the specifics in her letter.
"I appreciate the issues you highlight and understand that you do not agree with some of the content and with the ultimate conclusions of our Use of Force Review Board," Johanknecht writes in the letter, dated Oct. 10.
Usually, the Sheriff's Office would wait to conclude their Use of Force Review Board report until after the county conducts its own inquest hearing, which is a quasi-judicial public hearing where evidence and interviews are used in a courtroom setting to establish the facts surrounding a cop killing. But inquest hearings were put on hold by King County Executive Dow Constantine in January while he rewrote their rules. He recently announced the updated inquest rules earlier this month, but inquest hearings likely won't begin until early next year.
Johanknecht said in her letter that it was "unclear when any inquest in this matter would commence," so she felt it was in "the best interest of the community and the review process" to produce her own internal report before the inquest.
The community groups asked Johanknecht to direct the county's Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) to conduct a review of Johanknecht's use of force report. Johanknecht told the groups that they should go directly to OLEO with their complaint.
"You can send your request directly to OLEO, in the event you have not yet done so," Johanknecht wrote. "Although OLEO does review Internal Investigations to verify whether they are thorough, the County Code does not provide for the same kind of review process with respect to Use of Force Review Board proceedings."
The Sheriff isn't quite right about this. The county code does, in fact, give OLEO the right to conduct their own investigations. It's only the county's police unions that are standing in the way, according to OLEO Director Deborah Jacobs.
"In November 2015, King County voters approved an amendment to the King County Charter to provide OLEO the authority to conduct independent investigations. That authority was adopted by the King County Council in April 2017, but must be bargained with police unions first (contract ended December 31, 2016, bargaining ongoing)," Jacobs said in an e-mail.
Jacobs added that the county law actually allows OLEO to conduct larger investigations than the King County Sheriff's Office (KSCO) can.
"An OLEO investigation could conceivably have a broader scope than a KCSO investigation. Most police investigations of incidents seek to determine whether an incident was “justified.” The lens of the public is more toward exploring whether an incident was preventable," Jacobs said.
But until the police unions agree to give OLEO this power (which voters and the county council already granted OLEO), the office is left only reviewing the investigations that KCSO internally conducts. That means they can't subpoena evidence, interview witnesses, and analyze the incident. Right now OLEO can only review what the county has already analyzed, and only after a formal complaint has been filed to OLEO.
Jacobs said OLEO has not yet received a formal complaint about the incident but is currently considering how to best respond to the review board's findings.
"We are in the process of determining how best to approach review [of] the shooting, considering the recent letter about the shooting sent to the Sheriff by community members," Jacobs said. "OLEO serves the interests of the public and we will do everything within our authority to review this shooting and address the public’s questions and concerns."
Jacobs said any review her office does would include "a review of all interviews and evidence, as well as other issues."
"Since part of our daily work is to ensure the KCSO’s internal investigations are thorough and objective, that is a lens we typically utilize as a baseline," Jacobs said.
It is hard to see how the county's internal report was considered objective. Not only did they lack basic pieces of evidence like an autopsy or full witness statements, but they also spent much of the 11-page report trying to establish that Le had a knife when no knife was found near him after he was shot. The internal report included knives found inside of Le's home, even though he was shot by deputies in the street. The report offers no explanation to how Le could have dropped the knives off inside his home before being shot.
The community's letter takes particular aim at the county's pursuit of a knife.
The Sheriff’s office seems to have gone to some lengths to further obfuscate this situation, by indicating that after Tommy Le was killed, law enforcement personnel went to his lodgings and found knives. There is no evidence that any of the knives were used by Tommy Le to threaten others. It would be unusual to go to almost any lodging and not find any knives.
When Johanknecht's office released their internal report they claimed that even if Le did not have a knife (which they originally reported he had), the pen he was holding still constituted a mortal threat to the officers.
"A pen can be used as an improvised weapon. Aimed at vulnerable parts of the body, like the face or throat, it can cause serious bodily injury if used to stab someone," Johanknecht's office said in their press release.
The community groups take particular issue with this claim, writing that given Tommy's size and the fact that he was having a mental health incident his pen could not be deadly.
"The skill necessary to use a pen as a deadly weapon against alert, trained, and armed law enforcement professionals outnumbering the slight 120-pound 5’4” young man would exceed an ordinary lay person’s skills; Tommy Le was clearly not in his right mind, and not behaving as a trained assassin," the authors write.
The county's inquest hearings will provide another route for the public to find out how exactly Tommy Le was killed and if the extra-judicial killing could have been prevented. The county has yet to schedule Le's inquest hearing, but it's likely to be sometime in early 2019.
*Here is a list of the 12 people that signed the letter to Johanknecht.
• Diane Narasaki and Tony Lee, Co-Chairs, Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of King County
• Diane Narasaki, Executive Director, Asian Counseling and Referral Service
• Linh Thai, Founder and Director, Vietnamese Community Leadership Institute
• Marcos Martinez, Executive Director, Casa Latina
• Rich Stolz, Executive Director, OneAmerica
• Lisa Daugaard, Director, Public Defender Association
• Estela Ortega, Executive Director, El Centro de la Raza
• Andre’ Taylor, Founder and Chair, Not This Time!
• Jay Westwind Wolf Hollingsworth, Mohegan, Chair, John T. Williams Organizing Committee
• Rev. Harriett Walden, Founder, Mothers for Police Accountability
• James Hong, Executive Director, Vietnamese Friendship Association
• Jefferey Vu, Tet in Seattle