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Tommy Le's family calls for action from King County Sheriff following outside review of 2017 shooting death

caption: Tommy Le's father Hoai Le (left) and mother
Dieu Ho. "I think about him all the time. I miss him so much," Ho said.
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Tommy Le's father Hoai Le (left) and mother Dieu Ho. "I think about him all the time. I miss him so much," Ho said.
KUOW/Amy Radil

Family members of Tommy Le, who was shot by a King County deputy in 2017, welcomed an outside review of his death.

The King County Sheriff's Office, however, says the review creates a "false impression."

At a press conference held outside of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service in Seattle, Le’s parents and other community members on Wednesday called the review, commissioned by the county's Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, an important step in seeking accountability.

Le’s mother Dieu Ho said the past three years have been filled with grief.

“He was a good son,” she said, speaking through an interpreter. “I’m calling for help and assistance from the community so that he can find justice.”

King County Deputy Cesar Molina was responding to a 911 call of a man possibly armed with a knife when he shot Le in 2017. It turned out that Le was holding a pen.

Uyen Le, Tommy’s aunt, noted that they were initially told Le had come toward officers, but the review indicates Le was moving away from them when he was shot.

"We had to learn from the autopsy report that the bullet wounds came from behind,” she said. “All that narrative is not correct and accurate of who he is,” she said.

Uyen Le said the report also revealed investigators waited five weeks to interview the deputy who shot her nephew, and did not ask any follow-up questions.

“It seemed like they just didn’t really care, right?” Le said. “Because the amount of time and the questions was just part of protocol or something, but not genuinely trying to find out the truth.” She thanked members of the community and the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight for “digging deeper.”

Meanwhile, King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht told a King County Council committee on Wednesday that she disagrees with the conclusions of the review, which she said leaves the “false impression” that the Sheriff’s Office is not interested in evaluating its own actions.

“That is not correct,” Johanknecht said. “I am very much interested in making sure that we evaluate completely what we do and that we continue to strive for improvement.”

She said the review board that found Le’s shooting justified did have a “robust discussion” about the incident, including participation from a member of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight.

In a statement, Johanknecht's office acknowledged this was not conveyed in the review board’s summary report, which “could have contained more complete information about what the review board considered and more detailed facts about the incident. We see and acknowledge how this might be perceived by the family and public.”

The review said investigators and the review board failed to scrutinize the level of threat faced by deputies who responded to Le. Johanknecht said they have changed their internal processes since then.

“We updated and added more clarity to the Critical Incident Review Board,” which considers these incidents, she said. “We now consider and answer specific questions, including whether the members’ choices leading up to the event were sound, and whether there were reasonable alternatives to the use of force.”

She said other changes in the wake of Le’s death include more frequent replacement of tasers, since officers’ attempts to use their tasers on Le were not successful. They also updated officers’ first aid materials and training. She also said there are factual disputes about the encounter, which may be resolved through ongoing litigation.

Le’s family has filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court. Attorney Jeff Campiche said he expects U.S. District Court Judge Thomas Zilly to set a tentative trial date later this month. "The Le family wants the Sheriff herself to take responsibility for the wrongful killing of their son," Campiche said.

Wednesday’s press conference included members of Seattle’s Community Police Commission and other longtime activists on police oversight.

Community Police Commission member Joseph Seia is the executive director of the Pacific Islander Community Association. He said the outcry over Le’s death is related to the broader movement for racial justice and against police brutality.

“This has to stop,” Seia said. “Tommy Le’s death is not independent from the deaths of Black people at the hands of law enforcement. Tommy Le’s death is not independent of the Indigenous women that continue to be murdered every year. This is all rooted in how policing systems continue to perpetuate a colonial history that is based on white supremacy, that is based on ‘othering’ people because of their skin color.”

Former Community Police Commission member Jay Hollingsworth said he is now part of a statewide task force looking at changes to state law to bolster Initiative 940.

Passed in 2018, Initiative 940 requires independent investigations when law enforcement officers shoot someone in the line of duty. The mandate also eliminates a long-held legal standard of not charging officers in deadly force cases unless it can be proven they acted with "malice."

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