Tommy Le was a 20-year-old high schooler shot and killed by King County deputies on June 13 after responding to a disturbance call in Burien. Le was to graduate the next day. Le recently bought a tuxedo for his brother’s wedding, but it had to instead be used for his funeral. The family, due to legal concerns and religious practice, will not be available for interviews for 49 days after his death.
In an effort to get answers for Tommy Le’s family, members of the community organized a forum at Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) in which officials listened and answered questions. Young Vietnamese Americans were given priority after the family throughout the evening.
Due to the nation’s rise in fatal shootings by police and the political ring of distrust growing ever larger, King County Sheriff John Urquhart feels officer-involved shootings should never be investigated within their own police department. For Le’s case in particular, Urquhart said he is asking the Federal Bureau of Investigations to take over. The sheriff also said he will lobby the Legislature to have all officer-involved shootings investigated by state patrol.
Throughout the event, however, the sheriff routinely stood up from his seat and went to stand in front of the officials’ tables when on the mic. He also didn’t seem to understand the event’s process. It was predetermined that officials would sit and listen to the community’s questions, which were written down by other staff, and provide answers at the end. Urquhart instead wanted to provide an answer after every question, grabbing the mic. At one point, moderator Linh Thai had to tell the sheriff “you just need to listen.” Urquhart’s demeanor appeared to irritate crowd members.
State Sen. Bob Hasegawa (D–Beacon Hill) explained that a legislative bill tried changing the actual malice and good faith standards that determine an officer’s indictment in Washington. The bill didn’t make it, however. So he pointed to Initiative 940, which aims to do the same thing.
“Right now we have the most unattainable bar to bring charges against an officer,” Hasegawa said.
When it comes to police interactions with Le, Urquhart explained the deputies’ tasers didn’t work when employed. He speculated that one of the probes (there are two) on the tasers missed, but the department doesn’t know why it didn’t work.
“The bottom line in general they are told to back off,” the sheriff said of protocol. “There was no opportunity in this particular case for them to do that.”
Approximately 20 minutes into the event, one of Le’s family members was gently escorted out as she cried.
At one point, 26-year-old Joseph Lachman asked how, in Le’s “psychotic state,” did Le go home to put a knife away and bring back a pen.
Urquhart explained that witnesses said they were attacked with a knife and there were stab marks on the door, but confirmed there was no knife when Le was shot.
“There was some sort of mental crisis he was in,” Urquhart said. “This was uncharacteristic.”
As he said these answers, Lachman shook his head out of frustration.
“There were many details shared during [a separate meeting with Urquhart just an hour prior to the start of the public meeting] that did not come out during this time that makes this much more aggravating,” Lachman wrote on my reporter’s notepad after writing a question. “Tommy Le was shot in the side at least three times. The goal, according to the sheriff, is always ‘eliminating the threat,’ but not saving lives. It shows a fundamental problem with their priorities, and I am feeling a sense of anger and grief.”
In a later phone call, Urquhart laid out clearer details regarding the timeframe and identification of Le. The sheriff reported Le was only in boxers, and so they could not identify him. When he was pronounced dead at Harborview, they took his fingerprints but that didn’t come back because Le had no criminal history.
The next morning, a detective went to take identifiable pictures of Le, namely of his face and hand tattoos. At this point, the investigation determined Le came out of a house approximately 10 houses down from the scene. With a warrant, they searched what they believed was his room and found his driver’s license. The photo, however, wasn’t a complete match to the face in the detective’s photos. Urquhart attributed this to a change of hair. The license, however, did have Le’s parental address on it.
So the detective arrived at the father’s house, asking if Le had tattoos or if they could identify him based on the photo. Neither was confirmed by the family. The detective then learned where Tommy worked, where Le’s confirmed the tattoos were Le’s.
Le’s official identification, however, came from the medical examiner three days after his death.
The witnesses who reported Le with a knife also stated Le was inside his house before the shooting. This, Urquhart confirmed, is why the office believes Le left a knife behind at his house after the call and grabbed a pen, before the deputies arrived on the scene. The sheriff relayed that witnesses heard Le “screaming and shouting and arguing with himself.”
King County Councilmember Larry Gossett took issue with some of Urquhart’s statements that evening, however.
“I was kind of surprised the sheriff said the only people Tommy ran toward were people from the street,” Gossett said, “not the officers.”
He pointed toward inconsistency between Urquhart’s earlier statements with the media, and his statement that night. Terry, Le’s uncle, earlier questioned why police reported Le had a knife if he was running at them when it was a pen and they could probably see it.
Aisha, an audience member who requested her last name be excluded, said she saw the King County Sheriff’s office and Seattle Police Department at booths during an earlier event. She went to both tables, asking if they knew the names Tommy Le and Charleena Lyles (another person killed by police in the same month).
“No one knew the name of Tommy Le,” she said. “I’m wondering why that isn’t a normal conversation you guys are having.”
Deepa Bhandash also rose to take the mic.
“It’s easy to get lost in the details,” she said, noting that it doesn’t matter much whether Le had a knife or a pen or nothing at all. “To be a young man of color in America today and not go through a mental health crisis, you’re doing something right.”
Bhandash admitted to going through some mental illnesses herself.
Frank Arango, a veteran, asked if police shoot to kill, and if not, why aren’t they aiming at nonlethal parts of the body?
“Are King County departments trained how to take away a knife at hand to hand combat,” Arango also asked, “which isn’t hard. Everybody in the army can do it.”
A 14-year Vietnamese veteran, Tuan Nguyen, took the helm, speaking in Vietnamese while the moderator translated.
“It’s disheartening that we are at a state of war with our people,” he said. “It looks like a pair of military organizations. The community is not a battlefield and [police] are not the soldiers. You cannot apply the same community standards. Every officer needs to be trained in proper attitude and unarmed tactics. Discharging a weapon and hurting and killing someone is an awesome responsibility and one that will eat at your heart and your soul for the rest of your life.”
Le’s cousin, Jennie, expressed gratuity for the event, but still remained confused about the deputies’ decisions and perspectives regarding the pen. In addition, she said she didn’t manage to ask one question: Why did they have to shoot them in the torso?
Michael Moynihan, a previously renowned Seattle activist for Black Lives Matter, said the event felt the same as all of the other meetings in Arizona and Washington that follow-suit for people killed by police. The air felt like a thousand pounds but words felt empty.
“It’s a repeating record,” he said of authorities and police encounters.
While Seattle voters approved law enforcement oversight in 2015 by 57 percent county-wide, it still has to be negotiated with and approved by the Seattle Police Officers Guild.
Urquhart advocated for body cameras that evening but said the Sheriff’s office doesn’t have them because of the money it would take to then abide by Washington’s public records laws. He referenced the redactions (like body and face blurring) that would require time and money. The sheriff did plan on asking King County Executive Dow Constantine for body camera money regardless, but Gossett laughed and shook his head at this. Meanwhile, an audience member whispered, “He’s basically shifting the burden.”
Slideshow photos by Cathy You: