Members of the regional Vietnamese community gathered Sunday at a small Vietnamese restaurant in White Center to show support for the family of Tommy Le, the 20-year-old Burien resident who was shot and killed by a King County Sheriff’s Deputy last year.
The group also held a rally and fundraiser for Joe Nguyen, a Democratic candidate for state Senate in the 34th Legislative District.
For the Le family, their grief over the death of Tommy is still raw.
“It’s been a horrible time for us,” Xuyen Le, an aunt of Tommy Le, told the assembled group in the restaurant over a crackling sound system and surrounded by black banners reading “Justice for Tommy,” a large photo of the 20-year-old. “Every day waking up, it’s still very painful, the wound is still fresh, it’s open.”
Minutes earilier, Tommy’s mother, Dieu Ho, told the crowd through Linda Tran (attorney for the Le family) that she was still distraught. “Tommy’s mom cannot say anything right now. She’s sad,” Tran said, standing alongside Dieu Ho and Tommy’s father, Hoai Le. “She just wants to say thank you [for showing up].”
Last summer, a King County Sheriff’s Deputy shot and killed Le 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. However, immediately after the incident, the sheriff’s office initially claimed that Le was holding a knife or “some sort of sharp object” when he was shot. Then, nine days after the shooting, the department conceded that Le was only holding a pen after inquiries from Seattle Weekly. An autopsy later revealed that Le had been shot several times in the back. Trace amounts of LSD were also found in his system.
Both Tommy’s death and the initial misinformation put out by the sheriff’s office regarding the circumstances of the shooting kicked off a highly strained relationship between the Le family and the law enforcement agency. Initially, the Le family criticized the county’s inquest process for investigating police shootings as biased in favor of law enforcement, and they filed a civil rights lawsuit against the county in federal court. The case is expected to go to trial next summer.
Then, an internal review of the incident conducted by sheriff’s office personnel released in August had deemed the shooting justified and “within department policy.” Jeff Campiche, an attorney representing the Le family, has slammed the internal investigation for omitting the autopsy findings that Tommy was shot in the back.
“It just makes us lose trust and kind of lose hope in the justice system and the police force,” Xuyen Le told Seattle Weekly at the Oct. 14 event. “Going through this whole process it’s pretty shocking how, just starting from the beginning when everything happened, the public and the family is kept out of the loop on everything and not until we actually probe and ask and specifically seek for answers that things started unravelling.”
“It just seems like everything is behind a black veil,” she added. “It’s [been] very difficult for us this past year to navigate through everything.”
The sheriff’s office’s handling of the shooting has also prompted broader community outrage. On Oct. 4, a collection of local organizations including the Public Defender Association, the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, One America, and the Asian Pacific Islander Coalition of Washington State sent a “citizen complaint” to King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht, slamming the department’s internal investigation of the Le shooting.
“From the time of Tommy Le’s death, the sheriff’s office has at best obfuscated the circumstances of his death, and at worst, misled the public about how it transpired,” the letter reads. The letter called for an independent investigation of the shooting by the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), the official watchdog of the sheriff’s office. The police union representing sheriff’s deputies has yet to agree to allowing such independent investigations.
Also illustrated at the Oct. 14 event was the mobilization of a community previously unaccustomed to challenging authority or vigorously participating in local politics. Xuyen, Le’s aunt, told Seattle Weekly that her community generally isn’t “accustomed” to “speaking up to people of authority.”
In addition to showing support for the Le family, the gathering also served as a fundraiser and rally for Joe Nguyen, a young Democratic candidate to represent the 34th Legislative District — covering Vashon Island and Burien — in the Washington state Senate. Nguyen is the son of Vietnamese refugees.
“A skinny guy, is that a danger to police? To shoot and take a life away? Every time I think of that I want to cry,” said Long Nguin, a longtime activist in the Burien Vietnamese community, of Tommy Le.
“We need a person to speak up for us, stand up for us. That is Joe,” he added to cheers.
Nguyen is a Microsoft manager who finished first during the Aug. 2018 primary election with 31 percent of the vote against Shannon Braddock, deputy chief of staff for King County Executive Dow Constantine. They will face off in the November general election. Nguyen told the crowd at the event: “Tommy should not have been shot and he deserves justice.”
“We have a system right now that does not work. We have a system right now that, when a person is experiencing some kind of a crisis, instead of getting the help that he needed, his life was taken,” he said. “That’s not OK.”
Nguyen told Seattle Weekly that, historically, the local Vietnamese community has not been involved in “this type of activism.”
“First off, we’ve only been here for about 40 years. The Vietnamese community is relatively new and we were escaping an oppressive communist regime … Previously, it was just like ‘hey, you know what, we’re lucky to be here, let’s keep our heads down, we don’t want to get in trouble,’” he said. “So I think a lot of it is some of the younger community members coming together and being like, ‘look, we’re refugees and immigrants and that’s our identity. But we’re Americans too. And we deserve the same rights as everybody else.’ That’s what happened in this case. We saw somebody that was our brother, was our cousin, was our family member.”
“It’s great to know that there are [community] members out there wanting to help and contribute,” Xuyen, Le’s aunt, told Seattle Weekly at the Oct. 14 event. “It’s nice to occasionally still have these events just to remind us that there is a broader community and support group out there, it’s not just us, alone, by ourselves. Because sometimes it can really feel that way, [like] it’s just our family going through this.”
“Together, as a larger group with everyone, we’re not going to give up,” she added.
Last week, Executive Constantine announced changes to the inquest system to appease concerns from the Le family and others that the process was biased in favor of law enforcement. While the Le family applauds the changes, they still want to see an independent investigation.
“Though some changes that are long overdue have occurred, we believe that some are still needed, such as how homicides should not be investigated internally when it’s related to a police officer-involved shooting,” Xuyen told the crowd at the restaurant. “And I think until it’s investigated independently, then the communities of color and all communities will not believe in the conclusion.”