The final public comment at the Wednesday night forum about the shooting death of Tommy Le at the hands of a King County deputy came from a man named Tuan Nguyen.
Speaking through an interpreter, the elderly Vietnamese man called out what he said was a militarized police force.
“As a former police officer in the South Vietnamese army, it is troublesome to me to see the way police have been militarized and it concerns me that we are at war with our own people,” Nguyen said. “An officer’s duty first and foremost is to be a friend to the community, and the community to be friends to the officers.”
When he finished his comments, the room cheered.
It was an apt conclusion to the comment period. The forum was organized by a group called Justice for Tommy Le, and was designed as a way for Le’s family and the community in general to ask questions and express their concerns about Le’s June 14 death*. The Sheriff’s Office says that officer Cesar Molina believed Le had a knife as he approached him and another deputy just passed midnight in Burien. However, as was later learned, Le was in fact holding a pen (though, even that came into some question Wednesday night). The primary question on the audience’s mind was why a 120 pound 20-year-old holding a pen constituted such a threat to a deputy that he was shot and killed.
There to answer such questions was Molina’s boss, Sheriff John Urquhart. Urquhart largely defended Molina’s actions, recounting witness statements that Le had menaced several people on a Burien block, wielding what witnesses said was definitely a knife and calling himself “The Creator.” At one point Urquhart even play-acted the stabbing gestures Le had made toward neighbors. The Sheriff’s Office has previously speculated that Le may have returned to his nearby home after threatening people, then returned to the scene with a pen when he encountered law enforcement. Urquhart said that was now the department’s belief of what happened.
In a concession to calls for an independent investigation, though, Urquhart did say that he would ask the FBI to take over the investigation of the case. “Police departments should not be investigating their own departments,” he said.
In the front row of the forum was Le’s family. The evening began with remembrances of Le.
“There is no pain like losing a son. There is no pain like losing a piece of my heart,” Le’s father, Sunny Le, said through an interpreter.
His brother said Le was the youngest of six siblings. The last time they’d seen each other was a few weeks before his death, when they were “looking for a suit for him to wear to my wedding. It’s unbelievable that we had to use that suit for his funeral instead.”
Le had no criminal record. He died in the early morning of what was to be his graduation day, during which he was scheduled to receive a high school diploma through a program at South Seattle College. It is still unclear what led to his alleged behavior the night of his death. But his family chided the Sheriff’s Department for putting out a press release the same day that Le died, implying he had a knife and was generally menacing.
“We’re upset with how the media and police portrayed Tommy as violent and dangerous,” said Le’s aunt.
The forum marked the first public show of protest about the death that happened more than a month ago. Vietnamese-Americans told Seattle Weekly earlier this week that that was in part due to a cultural reticence toward speaking out against authority. The Le family’s lawyer, Jeff Campiche, said at the forum that the Le family was also adhering to Buddhist practice in not speaking publicly about Le for 49 days. He said the family members only attended the forum with the permission of their monk.
In a brief interview after the hearing, Campiche said that he’s spoken to witnesses who said Le didn’t even have a pen in his hand when he approached deputies that night. Urquhart responded that that was preposterous. “There clearly was a pen. We have the pen,” he said.
The forum was not strictly reserved for Seattle’s Vietnamese community. When public comment was opened, people under the age of 25 were invited to speak first. Several young people of color came up to ask pointed questions about the case. One young person said they’d gone to a job fair and asked recruiters from the King County Sheriff’s Office if they knew about the Le case. They said the recruiters did not. A woman named Dea said Le’s case should be seen in the context of other young minorities killed by law enforcement. “We are living in a country were young people of color are under assault,” she said.
Other public officials present for the forum were: County Councilmembers Larry Gossett and Joe McDermott; King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg; State Sen. Bob Hasegawa**; state Rep. Mia Gregerson; and Office of Law Enforcement Oversight executive director Deborah Jacobs.
Speaking to a group of people holding protest signs in the back of the room, Satterberg said it was right that people were upset over the case.
“It’s appropriate that you are angry about it. It is healthy you are upset. Thank you for being angry and thank you for demanding answers,” he said.
It remains an open question, though, whether they’ll get them.
*Our previous reporting on this case has stated Le died on June 13, based on the wording from the initial press release sent out by the King County Sheriff’s Office. However, the incident happened around midnight and Urquhart said at the forum that it was past midnight when Le was shot.
**Hasegawa made no mention of his run for mayor, and was clearly acting in his role as an elected Asian-American, lest any haters smell electioneering at play.