King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht on Wednesday publicly apologized to the family of Tommy Le, who was holding a ballpoint pen when killed by a deputy in 2017, but disputed major parts of an independent review that found “serious gaps” in how the department investigated the shooting.
Johanknecht appeared flustered and repeated herself during a Zoom appearance before the Metropolitan King County Council’s Law and Justice Committee, which accepted the independent review of the Le shooting and also heard from its author, former federal civil-rights prosecutor Michael Gennaco of the Los Angeles-based OIR Group, who earlier this year presented the council with a similarly blistering review of the death of 17-year-old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens.
Looking at the two in combination, Gennaco told the committee that, while the sheriff’s office has the policies and mechanisms in place to conduct thorough and fair reviews of critical incidents, the application leaves much to be desired.
“It’s not good,” he said. “I’m not even sure it’s passing. Your county sheriff’s office has a long way to go,” citing the need for a change in the insular culture which he believes permeates the King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO).
Johanknecht presented the council with a four-page letter, which appeared to serve as a script for her remarks. She said her office had only received a copy of Gennaco’s review within the past week and promised a more detailed response like one the office is compiling in response to the Dunlap-Gittens report, which it received six months ago. The sheriff said she expected them both to be complete by the end of 2020.
Before the hearing began, the committee heard from three members of Tommy Le’s family, including his mother, Dieu Ho, who spoke through an interpreter and apologized for getting emotional when her voice faltered behind her mask.
“I miss my son so much,” she said. “He was a nice boy and I am a lonely woman. I don’t know what to say.”
Le’s father, Hoan “Sunny” Le, said it has “been a long, hard three years for our family” as details of his son’s death slowly surfaced.
Before she began her presentation, Johanknecht paused to acknowledge the family and apologize.
“I apologize for the loss of their son,” she said. “I apologize for their pain.”
Johanknecht told the committee that the Gennaco report was misleading and failed to take into account recent changes to laws and her office’s policies and procedures relating to officers’ use of deadly force.
“The OLEO report and its recommendations leave a false impression that the KCSO is unresponsive and uninterested in evaluating its actions,” the sheriff said. “We agree the Sheriff’s Office must have strong systems in place.”
The report is sharply critical of the sheriff’s office public response to the shooting, where the public was initially told the 5-foot-4-inch, 123-pound Tommy Le had attacked a deputy with a knife and was killed in self-defense. Over several weeks, it was revealed that there was no knife — only a ballpoint pen. When the sheriff’s office cleared Deputy Cesar Molina for the shooting, it omitted the fact that Le had been shot twice in the back.
Le was shot three times the early morning of June 14, 2017, after deputies were called to a Burien neighborhood due to reports of a man, possibly armed with a knife or sharp object, acting disoriented and threatening people. Deputy Cesar Molina said Le charged him with a “pointed object” and then veered toward another deputy. Molina denied shooting Le in the back, although an autopsy showed he was struck twice from behind with a third round hitting his wrist.
A sheriff’s review board found the shooting justified and argued that a ballpoint pen was a potentially deadly weapon and that “deadly force still might have been an understandable outcome.” Gennaco said that conclusion concerned him more than anything.
“You have this tiny guy and three big armed deputies with all the tools and training at their disposal, and you still say that?” Gennaco said.
Johanknecht said the office learned from that series of incidents, and that policies and rules changed to require more detailed reports and explanations of findings. She insisted that her investigators and commanders had a “robust discussion” of the concerns raised in the Gennaco report, just that there’s no record of it.
“I fully understand how certain decisions about the release, or omission, of information to the media just after the shooting in 2017 undermined public trust,” Johanknecht said. That decision, she said, was made by her predecessor, John Urquhart.
However, Johanknecht acknowledged to the committee that the review of the shooting and the issues under review in Gennaco’s report occurred after her election in 2017.
Committee chairman Girmay Zahilay said he was troubled by the omission of “critical facts” from the public statements as well as subsequent findings. “This seems like a clear obstruction of justice,” he said.
He and councilman Rod Dembowski also raised questions about the decision not to interview the deputy who shot Le until five weeks after Le was killed. That interview lasted 17 minutes, and Gennaco’s report contains a long list of questions that were never asked.
The report was commissioned by the civilian-run Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO) and its director, Deborah Jacobs. The council on Tuesday voted not to renew Jacobs’ four-year contract after allegations of inappropriate behavior at work.
The county council has been struggling with oversight of the sheriff’s office and in July voted to significantly scale back the power of the sheriff, making the position appointed rather than elected.
At a press conference outside of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service center on Wednesday afternoon, Le’s family and community leaders spoke in support of the 42-page independent investigation. They stood behind a podium that featured a large photo of Le sporting a wide grin.
“I am appalled by the behavior, misconduct, and gross negligence of the King County sheriff,” said DeVitta Briscoe, assistant director of nonprofit Not This Time, and sister of Che Taylor who was killed by the Seattle Police Department in 2016. Briscoe criticized the double standard of law enforcement’s prosecution of criminals while neglecting to hold their officers accountable, she said.
“What we find in this independent investigation is that Tommy Le was not wielding a knife, and what we find over and over is that we vilify, and make our community members who are victims of police shootings guilty of their own deaths,” said Briscoe, who stood in front of a poster board that displayed an outline of Le’s body with red dots indicating where he was shot.
Jeff Campiche, an attorney representing the Le family in a civil rights lawsuit against King County, called on Johanknecht to take responsibility for the handling of the case and “to fix what’s broken in her sheriff’s office.”
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently sanctioned King County for “bringing a frivolous appeal,” to the Le family’s lawsuit, allowing the $10 million civil-rights case to proceed to trial, said Campiche. The first available trial date for the case will be decided on Sept. 24, he added.
Over three years after Le was killed, Ho said she still has questions about what she considers a flawed investigation by the sheriff’s Force Review Board.
“I would like them to be accountable to restore the faith in the community so that his life was not lost for nothing,” Ho said through court interpreter Nova Phung.
For now, Le’s family has settled into a new normal.
“We have come to accept the fact that he’s gone,” said Ho as she reminisced about her son who would have finished a two-year post-graduate degree by now. “He’s not coming back.”