Uyen Le was slow to respond when I asked her if she was satisfied with the King County’s Sheriff’s investigation of her nephew’s death.
“It’s not in our culture or our custom to really criticize or question authority,” Le said. “So, it is unnatural and it’s difficult because we don’t even know how to navigate through any of this process.”
But the Le family has slowly come to criticize the cops. Uyen’s 20-year-old nephew Tommy Le was shot and killed by a sheriff’s deputy last June and the King County Sheriff's Office has been caught in multiple misstatements surrounding the killing. First, the sheriff's office said Le was charging officers with a knife when they killed him. The county slowly changed their story as more details were revealed, including evidence showing Le was unarmed and shot in the back. But then Johanknecht’s office took to a different line of defense. The county argument is now that officers had to extra-judicially kill Le because even if he was armed only with an ink pen, he still posed a mortal threat to the cops.
Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht’s office released an internal investigation in August that cleared the officers of any wrongdoing. Le told me that Johanknecht’s investigation was completely unsatisfactory to the family.
“It failed to mention all of the facts and even one of the major facts is that he was shot from behind and that wasn’t noted at all in their report,” Le said. “I would say it’s not surprising, in a way, that they would come to that conclusion because they are internally investigating themselves, which is not a fair way—especially when the homicide is committed on their end. I don’t know why there wasn’t an external investigation.”
I was talking to Le on Sunday outside a Vietnamese restaurant in White Center, where the South Seattle Vietnamese community was meeting to show support for the Le family and their struggle to hold the county accountable. The event doubled as a campaign rally for Joe Nguyen, who is Vietnamese himself and is running for the Washington State Senate. There seemed to be a natural connection between the two sides of the event. Nguyen told me that Tommy’s death was one of the reasons he decided to run for the open Senate seat.
“Tommy got shot a block from where I went to high school and the first time I realized what was happening was a text message from my friend,” Nguyen said. “A lot of the activism we were doing previously was focusing on Tommy’s family, just making sure they had what they needed.”
That community organizing eventually led Nguyen to the realization that he should run to represent his hometown neighborhood in the state legislature.
Inside the restaurant, trays of fried spring rolls, shrimp fresh rolls, and sliced bánh mì sat on a bar as a series of community leaders took to a small stage. A sound system played the American and South Vietnamese anthems, people saluted and crossed their hearts. People spoke, partially in Vietnamese and partially in English, about the death of Tommy Le and their hope for Nguyen’s election. Tommy Le’s mother and father thanked the crowd for their support. Bob Hasegawa, a state senator representing the nearby Beacon Hill district, expressed his condolences to the family and his support for Nguyen.
“He brings your voice to the government. Most of you have the same family history and experiences and he can create legislation with that in mind, which is so important,” Hasegawa said.
When Nguyen took the microphone he talked about how Tommy’s death convinced him to run for state senate.
“We have a system that does not work. We have a system that when someone is experiencing a crisis, instead of getting the help that he needed, his life was taken. That’s not okay, and that’s something we are going to fight to fix going forward,” Nguyen said.
Nguyen framed his candidacy as part of that direct action to change the government.
“There’s a lot that we can do in this room and this state to make sure this is not going to be in vain, and a lot of that means making sure that we can provide the representation and leadership that Tommy deserves,” Nguyen said.
Le’s death is still slowly moving through the justice system. The sheriff’s office finished their own internal review of Le’s killing in August, but the county still needs to conduct an inquest hearing into the death, a quasi-judicial process where evidence and testimony is heard in a courtroom in front of a panel of jurors. No criminal or civil charges will come out of the inquest hearing, but it will provide a public way of finding out what happened that night and if the cops could have acted differently. The inquest hearing will likely not occur until 2019. The family also filed a civil lawsuit against the county, arguing that the officers deprived Le of his civil rights when they shot and killed him.
Back outside the restaurant, Quoc Nguyen, Tommy’s older brother, told me he thinks about what Tommy would be doing if he was still alive.
“He’d be in school, studying hard, trying to make a better life,” Nguyen said.
Uyen, Tommy’s aunt added: “He was supposed to graduate the next day form his alternative high school program at South Seattle Community College. And he had plans to continue going to the community college to complete his college degree.”
I asked Le what her nephew was like before he died.
“He was a goofy kid, very kind and friendly,” Uyen said. “I just can’t even imagine him harming anyone or anything, everyone in his class knew him as a friendly, fun person.”
Now Tommy is known by most people as another unarmed person of color killed by the cops.