Tommy Le’s uncle makes a speech for Tommy on the Public Forum on July 19, 2017 .• Photo by Cathy You

It’s been almost a year since Tommy Le was fatally shot by two members of the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO), and the KCSO falsely told the media and Le’s family that he held a knife during the confrontation. It’s been not muchmore than 100 days since the KCSO had a change in staff.

A number of Asian Pacific Islander (API) community members feel optimistic while others feel hesitant about upcoming changes under the newly elected sheriff, Mitzi Johanknecht.

How does the sheriff’s department intend to avoid any future deaths like Le’s? One possible way is ammunition. In February, the KCSO received sponge rounds, or Drag Stabilized (DS) bean bag rounds, intended to neutralize someone without using regular (and more likely to be lethal) bullets. Officers began training to use these bean bag rounds at the beginning of March.

The ammunition has to be paired with its own weapon in order for it to be used: “less lethal shotguns.” After much discussion with community members, the KCSO opted to avoid calling the new items “nonlethal,” unlike other departments across the country. The bean bag rounds themselves still have potential to cause significant damage, though not death. This is one of many steps Johanknecht wants to take in the hopes of avoiding another death like Le’s.

“I want the deputies to use what they’re trained in and what they think is best needed for that situation,” Johanknecht said. “There’s a big swath of [information determining the best option] that is a much more detailed conversation and some of it gets into tactics.”

A report from the national nonprofit Police Assessment Resource Center advised the KCSO in 2012 to start training deputies in de-escalation tactics and to use less lethal tools, like the bean bags. Now, the deputies are. They’re also receiving implicit bias training.

“Since 2012, we knew we should be doing this and the leadership of the sheriff’s office, from that time forward, hadn’t done anything about it,” Johanknecht said. “So I was saying ‘that is something that I would implement.’ I would take information from that study.”

And she did.

Another key component of these less lethal shotguns, Johanknecht pointed out, is that unlike Tasers, they don’t require officers to get closer before firing at a person. The sheriff added that Tasers don’t work half of the time because, to be effective, they require both prongs to actually attach to a person, and have an adequate distance apart on the body. This doesn’t always happen when Tasers fire and the prongs deploy.

KCSO policies specify that the less lethal shotgun is an additional force option, not a replacement. While training to use a less lethal shotgun is not mandatory, deputies who do use it are not allowed to carry any other shotgun “to avoid mixing of rounds.” This does not mean deputies with less lethal shotguns won’t be carrying a gun with bullets altogether. Other less lethal alternatives include Tasers, pepper spray, batons and chemical agents.

The King County Sheriff’s Office on the first floor of the King County Courthouse in downtown Seattle • Photo by Chetanya Robinson

Joseph Lachman, an API community activist and Civic Engagement Program Manager for Asian Counseling and Referral Services, believes that, while less lethal options are important, there are larger issues that need to be addressed.

“You really need to have a deep look at what policies and what trainings are already in place because when that officer reaches down, they can choose what to reach for, and if there’s the idea they ‘fear for their life,’ then is the instinct to go for the lethal weapon?” Lachman asked. “That’s where all those hours of training either kick in or they don’t. That really comes down to, I think, that fundamental idea that the culture of the sheriff’s office.”

Lachman felt having the less lethal option could influence a deputy’s mentality, However, there are still situations where law enforcement has access to non-lethal methods to subdue a suspect, but don’t use them.

“Unfortunately, I think in a lot of ways our society is relying on police to act as first responders to people in a mental health crisis,” he said. “And we don’t want to see people solving a mental health crisis with a bullet. Even just having a gun sometimes, out and pointed, can do a lot to escalate a situation. I think there’s a lot of potential we have for changing that kind of fundamental approach. I think it requires that they do a little more of looking inward instead of looking to buy new equipment. I don’t think this is something that can be solved with new equipment.”

Instead, Lachman looks toward accountability to instigate change. He’s optimistic about King County Executive Dow Constantine’s decision to halt the inquest process, leading to a new January ordinance requiring the county to supply lawyers to families who can’t afford them. What’s more, all of Washington state no longer includes the “malice” standard when investigating use of force, a change instigated by Not This Time’s Initiative 940, which passed into law in March through a sister bill.

Pushing up his thin framed glasses, Lachman described the less lethal weapons as “toys.”

“They’re not lethal, but that doesn’t mean they don’t hurt,” he said. “They’re meant to subdue people. I just don’t want to see lethal force being used against people when it’s not necessary, I also don’t want to see non-lethal force being used against people when it’s not necessary. Sometimes that’s protesters, sometimes that suspects.”

KCSO policy specifies that the less lethal shotguns may be used only when other physical, verbal and de-escalation alternatives would be or were ineffective. Policy specifies the less lethal shotguns are to control a resisting, aggressive or violent person posing a threat of physical harm to anyone including themselves.

None of this, however, erases what happened to Tommy Le, a 20-year-old high schooler shot by KCSO deputies the night before his graduation. Le was in an apparent mental health crisis during his confrontation with police, though teachers, friends and family described his alleged behavior that night as uncharacteristic of him. The toxicology report showed no drugs or alcohol in Le’s system, although it did not test for mushrooms or LSD. The International Examiner requested for the more inclusive toxicology report that detectives already asked for, and awaits this information.

Nor does it erase the fact that the KCSO disseminated false information stating that Le charged at officers with a knife, even though he was shot in the back and had only a pen.

“Slowly, throughout this narrative, Tommy’s body has been turning 180 degrees,” Lachman said. “It went from him ‘being shot in the side’ to him being shot in the back. I can’t think of any way they could reconcile these different narratives, the one told by the deputy and the one told by the bullets in Tommy’s back.”

Joe Nguyen, an API community member who works at Microsoft, feels more optimistic about the new efforts from the KCSO. Unlike Lachman, Nguyen has met and spoken with Johanknecht on several occasions. In fact, he’s now on the King County civilian commission for law enforcement oversight. Nguyen felt Urquhart repeatedly gave excuses when criticized whereas, he feels, Johanknecht is the “exact opposite.”

Johanknecht feels the same way. Furthermore, she said a predominantly male and predominantly white KCSO would further perpetuate problems.

“The work we need to do is not only to reflect the communities we serve — you’ll hear that a lot — but we have to engage, understand, and have allow all the different cultures that we provide service for sink into us,” Johanknecht said. “We shouldn’t just try to reflect it, but become a part of that culture.”

She believes there’s a barrier stopping more people of color from joining law enforcement. She wants to figure out why and recruit them.

Nguyen admired Johanknecht’s intentions but questioned why disenfranchised and marginalized communities would ever want to join law enforcement. He knows of only one Vietnamese officer in the KCSO, Peter Truong.

“The efforts [KCSO deputies] are doing need to be proactive and culturally competent and of the community,” Nguyen said. “They hold quarterly sessions of ‘this is how you become a law enforcement officer, you should come.’ That’s not good enough. You need to prove to the community that they belong there…that it’s actually relevant to you.”

Nguyen felt the problem of officers using lethal force when it’s unnecessary is solvable. He believes the solution is more training hours and simulations with weapons. Nguyen is adamant the training KCSO deputies receive now are outdated and infrequent. A self-described data nerd, Nguyen tracked down and analyzed data on KCSO trainings. He found that the KCSO doesn’t appear to use de-escalation tactics.

“We can fix this,” Nguyen said. “This is a thing we can do. Folks think [officers] should be trained, yada yada. They’re not. The number of hours they have with their firearms is very little. They usually only spend their time training with their firearms at a range, which is not the same as if you’re in a house or in public.”

Nguyen grew up in the same neighborhood as Le. The Vietnamese-American community isn’t exactly tight knit, he said, but they all know each other. He found out Le had been shot through a friend that night.

“All of it’s talk right now,” Nguyen said of Johanknecht in February. “She’s saying the right things, accountability being a big thing. The fucked up part is, for your job, you’ve taken an oath to protect a community, yet the community is afraid of you because of the shit that you’ve done. How do you mend that trust? The first thing is accepting that mistake or acknowledging things are broken and trying to mend that. Urquhart’s staff never did that. Mitzi and her staff have for sure been gracious and been apologetic.”

Thus far, the KCSO has done private mediation and outreach to the Vietnamese-American community. They even added Judge Dean Long, a well known and trusted API community member, to their oversight board. Johanknecht also emphasizes attending community events. She stands in support of I-940 and its sister bill, which is now law .

It’s been 33 years since Johanknecht entered law enforcement.

“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Johanknecht said. “As we’ve talked about just a few things we’re assessing and trying to get better at, there’s many more things I hope to accomplish and work with the community on. It’s just the beginnings, but I am looking forward to having those interactions…finding ways to reimagine how we do law enforcement.”

Update: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of King County Sheriff Officer Peter Truong

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