Tommy Le, 20, was fatally shot last year by a King County sheriff’s deputy who responded to reports that a man with a knife was threatening neighbors in Burien. Le was carrying a pen.
A King County sheriff’s review panel has unanimously concluded that a deputy was “justified and within department policy” when he fatally shot Tommy Le, 20, who was holding a pen that was mistaken for a knife during a disturbance in Burien last year.
Deputy Cesar Molina “reasonably believed that (Le) was armed with a deadly weapon and that he had already attacked someone with a knife,” according to a report issued Wednesday by the sheriff’s Use of Force Review Board. “The man’s actions led Molina to believe that if not stopped, the man posed a serious threat of harm to Molina” as well as another deputy and residents standing nearby.
The probe by the internal department review board — a panel consisting of six-voting members, including Undersheriff Scott Somers, legal adviser Erin Overbey and Steve Eggert, president of the King County Police Officers Guild — is one of several inquiries into Le’s shooting. A formal King County inquest of Le’s death also remains pending amid an overhaul of the inquest process called for by King County Executive Dow Constantine.
Le’s family also has filed a civil-rights lawsuit against King County, Constantine and John Urquhart, the sheriff at the time of the shooting.
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Jeff Campiche, a Seattle attorney representing the Le family, called the sheriff’s investigation biased and inconsistent during a news conference Wednesday.
“The Le family learned of the Sheriff’s Office conclusion this afternoon from neighbors,” he said. “They weren’t asked for input.”
Le’s death, which came hours before the Vietnamese American student was set to graduate from an alternative high school, raised outrage among his family and members of South King County’s Asian-American community, some of whom criticized the Sheriff’s Office for releasing false information in the aftermath of the shooting. The Sheriff’s Office initially told the press Le had been armed with a knife when he was shot.
When announcing the family’s lawsuit this year, Campiche said deputies “absolutely knew” Le had no knife within seconds after the shooting, yet nonetheless told the public and family members otherwise. Deputies later intentionally concealed from their police reports about the incident that two of the three bullets that struck Le hit him in the back, the attorney also contends.
“It’s hard to be shot in the back if you’re lunging at the police officer that shot you,” Campiche said earlier this year.
Le encountered deputies about midnight June 14, 2017, after they responded to several 911 calls about a man acting bizarrely and making threats in the 13600 block of Third Avenue South in Burien. One homeowner told dispatchers that he had fired his handgun into the ground, hoping to scare off the man later identified as Le.
When Le continued to approach, the homeowner fled back inside his house. Le, who was barefoot and wearing shorts and a T-shirt, then reportedly pounded on the door and stabbed it, screaming he was “the creator,” according to the Sheriff’s Office.
The two deputies who responded to the disturbance, Molina and Master Police Officer Tanner Owens, fired their Tasers at Le, but it’s unclear whether they struck him. When Le moved toward deputies, Molina shot him three times. Le was found to be holding a pen at the time. He died at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
Toxicology tests found Le had traces of the hallucinogen LSD in his system at the time of his death.
Among the information it reviewed, the use-of-force panel considered 911 recordings, statements from witnesses and other residents at the scene, photographs of the scene and interviews of various deputies about evidence gathered. Panel members also interviewed both deputies involved in the shooting.
Owens testified that when he and Molina encountered the man matching the description of the disturbance suspect, Le “was moving quickly toward Molina with purpose and that both of the man’s fists were clenched.” When the Taser didn’t work, Le ran directly at Owens, who told the panel he “believed his life was in danger,” according to the report.
Molina also similarly testified that Le ignored his commands to stop and, after the Tasers failed, kept advancing toward the officers with what deputies believed to be a knife.
“Deputy Molina, fearing for his own life and that of MPO Owens, fired 3-5 shots at the man, until he felt he could no longer do so because of back drop and danger to others,” the report said. “It was at this time that the man fell to the ground, not far from MPO Owens’ feet. MPO Tanner began providing aid almost immediately.”
The report also noted that a detective who searched Le’s home after the shooting recovered several knives, including a “butterfly” knife that two witnesses to the disturbance identified as similar to the knife they claim they saw Le holding while acting bizarrely.
“Although Deputies & witnesses were convinced Le had a knife, it is not clear that events would have evolved differently even if deputies realized that Le held a pen,” according to a news release issued Wednesday by Liz Rocca, Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht’s chief of staff. “A pen can be used as an improvised weapon.”
The Sheriff’s Office’s convening of its Use of Force Review Board is mandated by department policy after any deputy-involved shooting or serious use-of-force incident to evaluate whether the force used was necessary, appropriate and within policy. During fatal shootings, such reviews typically occur after an inquest is conducted.
But because King County has postponed all inquests, including Le’s, while it overhauls its inquest process, the Sheriff’s Office “believed it was in the best interest of the community” to hold the review for Le’s shooting on June 20 “without further delay,” according to Rocca’s statement.
The Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) — the civilian-led watchdog agency for the Sheriff’s Office — isn’t involved in the use-of-force panel’s review, but is authorized to review the department’s administrative investigation of the incident to determine its objectivity and thoroughness when a formal complaint is made. OLEO Director Deborah Jacobs said her office had not received such a complaint as of Wednesday afternoon.
Campiche, the attorney for Le’s family, stressed the report is not a substitute for a neutral ruling in the court of law.
Another attorney for the Le family, Linda Diem Tran, said the family is disillusioned with the finding, but not surprised.
“They are immigrants who came to America and believed in the system,” she said. “They’re distressed.”
Seattle Times staff reporter Agueda Pacheco-Flores contributed to this story.