A man shot last week by a King County Sheriff’s deputy was brandishing a pen, the Sheriff’s Office said Thursday in response to a request from Seattle Weekly, a fact that differs sharply from initial reports that he was armed with what was believed to be a knife.
According to a press release put out by the King County Sheriff’s Office shortly after Tommy Le was killed, King County deputies contracted by the city of Burien responded to a shots-fired call shortly before midnight on June 13. The gunshot was a warning shot fired by a homeowner who later told police he was being approached by a man with a knife “or some sort of sharp object.” That man was Le. After the warning shot, which did not deter Le, the man ran into his house, and Le began stabbing the door with the object in his hand, “all the while yelling that he was ‘The Creator,’ ” according to the sheriff’s office. The release never says what investigators determined Le was actually carrying. On Thursday, the King County Sheriff’s Office told Seattle Weekly that the object turned out to be a pen.
When deputies arrived, they ordered Le to get on the ground and drop whatever he was holding. He refused, and began advancing toward the deputies, according to the Sheriff’s Office. The press release says the deputies fired their Tasers at the suspect, and that the Tasers “were not effective.” The release does not specify whether the Tasers actually hit Le, though in a follow up email, Sgt. Cindi West said one of the two Tasers did strike him. As he continued to advance, one deputy, Cesar Molina, who has 2-and-a-half years experience with the Sheriff’s Office, fired “at least one round,” accord to the release (it was three, West later said). “Deputies immediately began lifesaving first aid efforts and also called for Fire Medics to respond,” the release continues. “After Medics arrived, they took over lifesaving efforts, eventually transporting the suspect to Harborview. The suspect died of his injuries.”
“Little is known at this time about the suspect,” the press release continues. The Sheriff’s Office said it would release more information when it was known. It has yet to issue any more information, including a release clarifying that the “sharp object” Le was carrying was a pen.
When contacted by Seattle Weekly, the King County Medical Examiner on Thursday identified the deceased as Tommy Le and listed his age as 20. A search of King County district and superior court records turned up no records for Le. There also appears to be no online memorials set up for him. However, word of his death has reached the local Vietnamese community, of which he was a part.
Linh Thai, director of Seattle’s Vietnamese Community Leadership Institute, said he was aware of Le’s death, and said the community is dealing with a range of emotion.
“I think the community is struggling with two narratives. On the one hand, it’s a fellow Vietnamese American person, a member of the community, and that them being shot dead by anyone regardless of whether it is police is difficult for the community to grapple with,” Thai said. “It’s impacting everyone in that sense.
“On the other hand, the community also has a tradition of respecting the law. … We trust the police. They’ll tell us what happened when they’re ready to tell us. That kind of stuff.”
Initial media coverage of Le’s death reported much of the official press release verbatim, with several reporters on Twitter saying that Le had a knife.
— Denise Whitaker🏃♀️ (@deniseonKOMO) June 14, 2017
Much of the coverage also emphasized Le’s claim that he was “The Creator,” which the Sheriff’s Office noted in the headline of its press release. The police shooting, five days later, of Charleena Lyles in Seattle, stirred debate on whether media should emphasize her mental illness in headlines. No such conversation surrounded Le’s death.
West says that the shooting will be subject to a criminal investigation to determine whether any laws have been broken, an administrative review to determine whether policy was followed, and will be the subject of a public inquest, which County Executive Dow Constantine calls for all officer-involved shootings in King County.
West says Deputy Molina had undergone the 40-hour Crisis Intervention Training, which has been cited as a way to better train law enforcement in how to handle mental health situations without resorting to violence. Molina is currently on administrative leave, West says, as is standard procedure.
Deborah Jacobs, head of King County’s external police watchdog group, declined to discuss Le’s case because it is an ongoing investigation. In an email, she said that after the sheriff’s office concludes its investigations, her Office of Law Enforcement Oversight “will provide any recommendations we have for changes in policy, training or practices related to the incident. Because OLEO serves the interests of the public, it reviews critical incidents from the lens of preventability: is there anything that could have been done differently to prevent similar shootings in the future, for the benefit of all involved?”
As opposed to the Lyles case, there has been little criticism of the Burien shooting.
One of the few personal statements about Le that Seattle Weekly could find was on the B-Town Blog, which covers Burien. Beneath a post that simply republished the King County Sheriff’s Office press release, a reader using the handle “anonymous” wrote:
“While every news report and post repeatedly refers to the deceased as ‘Man’ the sad truth is that this was a barerly 19 year old [sic], kind, caring, compassionate kid that had a smile and spirit that could light up the darkest of spaces. I will choose to remember him for the amazing person he was DAILY rather than the one night of … poor choices that ended his life. Rest in peace sweet boy.”
The comment has 20 “dislikes” and 13 “likes.”
Another comment simply says: “Sounds like a ‘clean shoot’ if there ever was one.” That comment garnered 17 “likes” and 4 “dislikes.”
This story has been updated.