Report finds ‘problematic gaps’ in investigation of deadly 2017 King County Sheriff’s Office shooting

Sep 2, 2020, 6:25 AM | Updated: 10:50 am
Tommy Le, King County Sheriff's Office shooting...
The family of Tommy Le is suing King County officials following the fatal shooting of their family member. (Hanna Scott, KIRO Radio)
(Hanna Scott, KIRO Radio)

For the second time in over six months, an outside agency has delivered a scathing report on the King County Sheriff’s Office over a deadly use of force incident.

Tommy Le family sues King County for officer-involved shooting

The report, which examines the internal administrative review and criminal investigation process, found serious gaps in the internal investigation into the 2017 death of 20-year-old Tommy Le, a Vietnamese-American who was shot and killed one day before he was set to get his high school diploma.

Le’s family has a pending lawsuit against the county over the death.

Deputies were called to an address in Burien after neighbors reported a man with a sharp object threatening people, calling himself the “creator.” It was later revealed that Le was disoriented from LSD.

Deputy Cesar Molina was the third deputy to arrive and opened fire less than two minutes later, initially saying Le lunged at deputies with a knife and claimed self-defense. It was later found that Le only had a ballpoint pen when Molina fired six shots. An autopsy revealed two of the three shots that hit Le were in the back.

Both Molina and Deputy Tanner Owens reported first deploying Tasers that had no effect.

The report, commissioned by outgoing Office of Law Enforcement Oversight Director Deborah Jacobs, slams what it describes as the “incomplete factual record and the lack of rigor in the review process,” that it states “left little for the Use of Force Review Board to consider systemically,” and that even a handful of suggestions that were identified were not acted on resulting in no systemic changes at the department from its own internal review,” wrote Michael Gennaco, president of OIR Group, which provided the independent review.

There were also “problematic gaps in the areas of fact collection, identification of systemic issues, follow through on the suggestions that were identified and scrutiny of the shooter deputy’s decision-making,” the report noted.

It adds that the handful of suggestions that were identified were not formally acted on, resulting in no systemic changes at the department as a result of the KCSO review.

The board did not “fully utilize or grapple with those critical facts that it did have at its disposal,” Gennaco wrote, and failed to “conduct an exacting assessment of the threat level presented to the on-scene deputies during various phases of the incident.”

Most significantly, the Review Board did not “expressly consider and discuss the fact that Le was likely running away from the deputy at the time the bullets struck him – a key factor in any valid assessment of whether the level of threat to him, his fellow deputies and the on-scene civilians was sufficiently high for the discharge of the deputy’s firearm,” it stated.

The report makes nearly 30 recommendations for changes for KCSO, including not citing concerns about pending litigation as a reason not to cooperate with independent agencies such as OIR, providing access to personnel, ensuring accurate and timely information to the public and media, changing policies so deputies responsible for use of deadly force are not able to submit a written report in lieu of a timely interview, and that interviews are conducted before the end of a deputy’s shift.

Both Molina and Owens were interviewed five weeks after the shooting, and those interviews only lasted 17 minutes. The report said that it was “unclear” whether the deputies collaborated on their statements.

It also stated, because the interviews were so delayed and short, critical questions about their observations and decision-making were never asked, leaving the Review Board to fill in the gaps.

Most significantly, the “Board was not presented with a clear picture of what Le was doing and where he was moving in relation to the on-scene deputies and civilians when the shooting occurred,” resulting in a situation “where there was not and could not have been a full reckoning of the decision to use deadly force,” Gennaco wrote, adding the superficial interviews and lack of clear reporting did not meet minimum standards expected of trained investigators.

“Hopefully, the public understands that you can’t change the objective, physical facts, [and] the forensic facts, and those facts are that Tommy died of two gunshot wounds to his back and one to the back of his hand,” said Le family attorney Jeff Campiche.

“No amount of getting together and getting your story straight changes that fact — Tommy was not attacking the officer with a knife when he was shot … there never was a knife,” he added.

Campiche also points to, as noted in the report, the fact that Le was five feet and four inches tall and weighed 123 pounds, while deputies both outnumbered and outweighed him.

“Finally, the public’s told the truth,” Campiche said. “Yet King County still hides behind its untruths and conceals the facts.”

Campiche says the Le case is unacceptable, especially in this time of great social awareness and unrest about police violence.

Inquests into King County police shootings temporarily on hold

“The people of the state no longer tolerate law enforcement covering up unnecessary use of force, whether it’s on a person of color [or] a white person,” Campiche explained, describing the betrayal Le’s family has felt.

“To his family  that fled Vietnam decades ago because they believed that they would be safe from government oppression in the United States, believing that the U.S. had a better justice system, they feel betrayed by the King County Sheriff’s Office, the King County Council, and the County Executive, all who’ve done nothing to right this wrong,” Campiche said.

King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht will testify on the report’s findings at the King County Council’s Law and Justice Committee hearing Wednesday.

“We agree that the Sheriff’s Office must have strong systems in place to investigate and evaluate the actions of our members and to initiate clear accountability measures when their actions fall short, and make important course corrections based on lessons learned from prior events,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement Tuesday evening.

“Although this tragic incident took place under the watch of a former sheriff in 2017, Sheriff Mitzi G. Johanknecht has made a number of improvements in policy and process since taking office in 2018,” it continued. “All of these policy changes and improvements were known to OLEO, but (are) not accurately reflected in either report,” referencing a February report from OIR on the department’s handling of the deadly 2017 shooting of 17 year old Mi’Chance Dunlap-Gittens in a botched sting operation.

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Report finds ‘problematic gaps’ in investigation of deadly 2017 King County Sheriff’s Office shooting