The widow of an elderly Chinese immigrant filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit this week, claiming two Issaquah police officers used excessive force and wrongfully caused her husband’s death when they allegedly forced their way into the couple’s Issaquah apartment in August and roughly handled the 66-year-old, breaking his neck.
“It’s just the saddest thing ever,” said David B. Owens, one of the attorneys representing Liping Yang. She witnessed the incident with the officers and saw the suffering her husband, Wangsheng Leng, endured while hospitalized in the month before his death on Sept. 5. “There is an important social-justice issue at the heart of the suit and we’re hoping we can bring a measure of justice to the family.”
The King County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled Leng’s death a homicide as a result of his spinal-cord injury. Information provided by the medical examiner indicates Leng had also been suffering from dementia.
As a result of the medical examiner’s homicide finding, Issaquah police asked the King County Sheriff’s Office in September to investigate the officers’ use of force. Sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Ryan Abbott said Friday the investigation is still open but is close to being completed.
Neither Leng nor his wife spoke English and were part of a growing population of elderly Chinese residents who have settled in Issaquah, according to Owens. The lawsuit seeks monetary damages, policy changes and new training for Issaquah police officers to prevent similar incidents in the future.
The lawsuit names the city of Issaquah and Officers Michael Lucht and Kylen Whittom as defendants. Lucht, 43, was hired by the department in 2014 and Whittom, 33, was hired in 2016, public records show.
In a statement posted Thursday on the city of Issaquah’s website, there is no mention of the officers encountering a possible language or cultural barrier. The city does have a language line officers can call for help from an interpreter, but the statement and lawsuit don’t say whether Lucht or Whittom used it to communicate with the Mandarin-speaking couple.
On Aug. 5, the officers were dispatched to the couple’s apartment for a possible domestic-violence situation after a neighbor called 911 and reported hearing raised voices and items being thrown, according to the city’s statement. When Yang opened the door, the officers “observed that Mr. Leng was holding his wife from behind” and they forced their way in as the door began to close, it says.
Leng resisted the officers’ attempt to detain him and was held by the arms and moved to a couch, where he was handcuffed, the statement says. The officers then summoned medical aid.
According to Owens, there was no history of domestic violence between the couple and the officers didn’t have a warrant or probable cause to enter the apartment.
The 911 caller reported hearing “some yelling in a language he didn’t understand,” but by the time Lucht and Whittom arrived, “there was nothing going on,” Owens said.
“It’s impossible to imagine how you could have a day go from being completely benign to completely life-altering,” said Owens. He contends the officers — who were bigger and younger than Leng — broke his neck while handcuffing him.
Leng “went limp” and the officers summoned medics, but Owens said one of them later wrote in his report about the incident that Leng did not suffer any injuries — even though Leng was taken directly to an Issaquah hospital and underwent several surgeries before he died a month later. He criticized the city for attempting to hide Leng’s death from the public and said officials have asked for more time to provide public records he’s requested that are already long overdue.
News researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.