Tommy Le’s family, community raise questions in fatal shooting by deputy

Tuan Nguyen speaks at a forum about the death of Tommy Le, who was shot and killed by King County Sheriff’s deputies last month. (Photo by Yemas Ly.)

It has been more than a month since Tommy Le was shot and killed by King County deputies, but his family and the Vietnamese community are still left with questions about what happened the night he died.

Vietnamese community members held a public forum Wednesday night to seek answers from the King County Sheriff’s Office and other elected officials about Le, a 20-year-old Vietnamese-American student who was fatally shot by county deputies on June 13.

“Tommy came from an area that had a lot of Vietnamese people with generally more recent immigrants,” said forum organizer Jefferey Vu, who knows Le’s aunt and uncle. “The shooting made the community more hesitant to call the police than they already were.”

Le’s death occurred less than a week before Seattle Police shot and killed Charleena Lyles, but the public outcry and protest did not appear to be as immediate.

Organizers of Wednesday’s forum told reporters one factor in that apparent lack of protest is that political activism and openly speaking out against authority has been relatively new in the local Vietnamese community.

Le’s family also had wished to follow the Buddhist practice of not speaking publicly about Le’s death for 49 days. The family attended the forum only after gaining permission from their monk, said the Le family’s attorney Jeff Campiche at the forum, which was held at Asian Counseling and Referral Service.

Friends and family remembered Le as a kind person who liked to read and play chess. Le did not have a criminal history — not even a traffic ticket — and did not belong to a gang.

“I met with Tommy two weeks ago to buy a nice suit for him to attend my wedding,” Le’s older brother Quoc Nguyen said. “It’s unfortunate that we will use that suit for his funeral.”

They remembered a young man, the youngest of six siblings, as someone who was bubbly with “no aggressive bone in his body” and who had always made people laugh.

“There’s no pain like losing my son,” father Hoai (Sunny) Le said, translated by attorney Linda Tran. “There is no pain like losing a piece of my heart.”

The family’s picture was in stark contrast to the person described by deputies and 911 callers on the night that Le died.

On the night of June 13 – just one day before before Le’s graduation from the alternative high school program Career Link at South Seattle College  — the Sheriff’s Office responded to two 911 calls about shots fired on the 13600 block of Third Avenue S.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, a homeowner had fired his handgun into the ground in an attempt to scare off Le, who reportedly had been brandishing an object at another man in the neighborhood and screaming that he was “the Creator.”

Witnesses who spoke to 911 dispatchers and the deputies said they weren’t sure whether the object that Le was holding was a knife.

The man reportedly chased by Le that night told 911 dispatchers he was unsure if Le was holding a knife but that it was pointed like a screwdriver.

The object turned out to be a pen.

Three deputies arrived onto the scene and two deputies — Deputy Cesar Molina and Deputy Tanner Owens — approached Le and demanded that he drop his object, but Le refused, the deputies reported. After firing Tasers, Molina shot Le three times. Molina began first aid until the medics arrived. Le later died from his injuries at Harborview Medical Center.

The Sheriff’s Office’s initial press release the day after the shooting was ambiguous about the object that Le was holding, but many news organizations reported that it was a knife. The Seattle Weekly confirmed nine days later that Le was holding a pen.

King County Sheriff John Urquhart was one of several elected officials who attended the forum. Urquhart speculated that Le was experiencing a mental crisis or that something may have happened to him to cause his actions. Toxicology reports are pending from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Urquhart was adamant that the two phone calls the Sheriff’s Office received noted that Le was carrying a knife even though he was found with no knife. He says that the investigation’s working theory is that Le quickly traveled 10 houses from the scene back to his home to return the knives and come back with a pen in a matter of minutes.

Urquhart claimed that there were witnesses inside and outside the house who saw Le enter and leave.

Urquhart said that the Sheriff’s Office will ask the FBI to take over the case, as a police department should not investigate their own officer-involved shooting.

When asked why King County Sheriff’s deputies do not have body cameras or dashboard cameras, Urquhart said that the department wants cameras, but claimed the department cannot afford it due to Washington open disclosure laws.

“We’d have to blur out the children’s faces and dead bodies in real time,” Urquhart said. He added that the body cameras themselves and the software are affordable.

King County Councilmember Larry Gossett joined community members in questioning Urquhart on the details of the account.

“In the news it said that they shot Tommy when he was going toward the deputies but here you said that they shot him because the deputies thought he was moving toward other people who were 100 feet away,” Gossett said. “There’s inconsistency.”

State Senator Bob Hasegawa said the situation illustrated the need for increased de-escalation training.

Hasegawa, who is also a Seattle mayoral candidate, told the audience the legislature has failed to pass laws to increase training and accountability for police in cases of deadly force. He said it remains difficult to charge an officer in a fatal shooting case.

“It is most unattainable to charge an officer if you cannot prove that he woke up that morning with malice in his heart,” Hasegawa said.

Hasegawa later advocated Initiative 940, which, if passed, will obligate officers to complete de-escalation training to defuse conflicts without the use of deadly force within the first 15 months of employment. Supporters of the initiative are currently gathering signatures for the November 2018 ballot.

Along with Urquhart, Gossett and Hasegawa, the event was attended by King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight Director Deborah Jacobs, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, King County Deputy Executive Rhonda Berry, King County Councilmember Joe McDermott and State Representative Mia Gregerson.

But the focus was on the community.

Vietnamese elder Tuan Nguyen’s speech, translated by host Linh Thai, recalled being an officer for the South Vietnamese army for 14 years and noted that the army prioritized hand-to-hand combat to de-escalate a situation.

Nguyen also noted that the police brutality seen on the news nationwide is “really less than professional” and dishonoring the pledge officers make to uphold the law when they are hired.

“It is alarming to see the police militarized all over the country,” Nguyen said. “I cannot see the community as a battlefield. It cannot be ‘kill or be killed.’”