Systems: The Killing of Tommy Le
By Daniel S. Le
“They are immigrants who came to America and believed in the system”, an attorney recently said on behalf of Tommy Le’s Family. Like thousands of Vietnamese refugees to America during the 70’s and 80’s, they were running from the corrupt (falling) government of South Vietnam in a soon to be communist country—a place where law enforcement and authorities shot people dead without proper justification or cause as they do today.
On June 14, 2017, Tommy Le, the 20-year old son of Vietnamese immigrants was shot and killed by King’s County Sherriff’s Deputies on the 13600 block of Third Avenue South in Burien, Washington. The deputies had been called there on a possible assault involving a knife. What the deputies actually found in Tommy’s possession was a pen and three bullet wounds (two of them entering his back).
The Sherriff’s Use of Force Review Board recently found the deputy’s use of deadly force reasonable despite the King County inquest process not yet completed. Those two separate systems of reviewing law enforcement use of deadly force are meant to be applied in order; a completed inquest to investigate the causes and circumstances of a police involved fatality with the Sherriff’s review of use of force following.
Why didn’t that occur?
Because on January 8, 2018, King County began an overhaul process of its inquest procedure halting all pending inquiries. An overhaul halting mandatory inquest process involving juries of residents on criminal/civil liability of the involved officers.
Why would that process be vital in Tommy’s case?
Because the Use of Force (Policy) Review Board is an internal Sherriff’s Office committee comprised of fellow law officers. An inquest would have been decided by neutral residents given the substantial conflict between the deputy’s statements and evidence collected—an inquest process which suddenly needed a systemic change without stated reasons for why change was needed.
The deputy alleged that Tommy lunged at him with what he believed to be a knife in his hand. The evidence collected shows the knife was actually a pen and that two of Tommy’s bullet wounds entered his back rather than the front of his body. These are not mere inconsistencies. These are substantial facts that must be decided by a neutral body of decision makers and not fellow law enforcement colleagues.
Although neither system is dispositive on the civil wrongful death lawsuit filed by Tommy’s family, these systems have not been followed shattering the family’s trust for the local government in which they had believed would be better than the government systems they sought refuge from in Vietnam—a belief now irretrievably lost because of King County’s failure to abide by their systems meant to serve and protect Tommy and all residents.
Ultimately, Tommy’s pen may prove to be mightier than the injustice he and his family have faced to date. Including the belief that the systems of government in America, Washington and King County should afford them something they can believe in: accountable and lawful government.
As of today, Tommy and his family have received the same from their local government systems as they would have in Vietnam. A country where their son‘s killing required no justification. Even more devastating to the Le family is that the systems here uphold allegations contradicted by the evidence collected without a lawful inquest taking place. An intentional deprivation of process for the taking of Tommy’s young adult life as it was just beginning—a killing with no justification at all.
Daniel S. Le was a refugee of Vietnam with his family in 1975 as Saigon fell. He was a former legal aid lawyer now in private practice, a proud board member of Mixed Blood Theater (formerly served on Theater Mu's Board for over a decade) and a playwright.