Last summer’s fatal shooting of 20-year-old Vietnamese American Burien resident Tommy Le by two King County Sheriff’s deputies was justified and abided by department policy, according to an internal review.
Sheriff’s Deputy Cesar Molina and Master Police Officer Tanner Owens shot and killed Tommy Le on June 13, 2017, in a Burien residential neighborhood after Le allegedly threatened the officers with a pen and refused to respond to commands to drop the object. The deputies had responded to early morning reports that Le was allegedly threatening neighbors with a knife.
After the incident, the Sheriff’s Office claimed that Le was holding a knife or “some sort of sharp object” when he was shot. Nine days after the shooting, the department conceded that Le had only been holding a pen after inquiries from Seattle Weekly. An autopsy eventually revealed that Le had been shot several times in the back.
The conclusion that the shooting was justified was found by the Sheriff’s Office Use-of-Force Review Board, a collection of non-involved department personnel that assesses the rationale of any serious incidents involving an officer’s use of force. The board reviewed 911 call recordings, witness statements, photographs from the scene, and testimony from the involved deputies — and was unanimous in their assessment.
According to an Aug. 22 release from King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht’s Chief of Staff Liz Rocca, the board found that the officer who shot Le, Cesar Molina, acted within department policy by shooting him because he and the other deputy involved in the incident, Tanner Owens, first used non-lethal tactics to subdue Le, such as verbal commands to stop and drop the object in his hands as well as deploying taser. After those tactics didn’t work, the deputies claimed they genuinely feared that the 20-year-old would harm them or bystanders.
“At one point, Mr. Le moved within 5 feet of Master Police Officer Owens, holding what was believed to be a knife in a clenched fist, and moving forward rapidly,” a press release reads, going on to claim that a pen can be used as an improvised weapon that, if aimed at vulnerable parts of the body, can cause “serious bodily injury if used to stab someone.” Toxicology reports eventually found trace amounts of LSD in Le’s blood, according to the Sheriff’s Office.
“In this case, Le was moving quickly toward the deputies with the object held in a clenched fist and did not acknowledge verbal commands to drop what he was holding, leading Deputy Molina to fear for his safety and the safety of others,” the release read.
In response, lawyers representing the Le family denounced the board’s assessment of the incident. The family has filed a lawsuit in federal court against both King County and Deputy Molina alleging that the shooting violated the 20-year-old’s civil rights. They are seeking $20 million in damages.
“Let’s not be confused about what’s happened today,” said Jeff Campiche, one of the attorneys, during a Aug. 22 press conference. “This is not a ruling, this is not a finding, this is not a independent court. This is the sheriff’s office investigating itself.”
Campiche went on to claim that the board did not consider the coroner’s finding that Le was shot in the back.
“The coroner’s report establishes that he was shot in the back three times. A forensic evaluation of where the rest of the bullets ended up make the conclusion that he was attacking somebody unlikely and unprovable,” he added.
Campiche also said that Le’s family, who are Vietnamese refugees, are “disappointed” and “disillusioned but not surprised” about the internal review’s finding given the department’s track record of disseminating inaccurate information about the circumstances of the shooting.
Reviews by the Use-of-Force Board typically aren’t released until the the Sheriff’s Office runs through its own procedure for addressing officer-involved shootings, known as the inquest process. After the Le family slammed the process as one-sided and biased, in early 2018, King County Executive Dow Constantine formed a committee to produce recommendations to reform the process, and the county has yet to formally change the procedure. According to the Aug. 22 press release, the review of Le’s death was released anyway, given the uncertainty surrounding the inquest system.
“The family wants justice,” said Linda Tran, the other attorney representing the Le family at the Aug. 22 press conference.
The family’s federal lawsuit is set to go to trial next summer.