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King County sheriff's handling of Tommy Le shooting lacked critical facts, review concludes

An outside investigator presented the King County Council with a scathing review of the sheriff’s department on Wednesday, centered on its handling of the fatal shooting of 20-year-old Tommy Le.

Le was killed three years ago by sheriff’s Deputy Cesar Molina, who was responding to a report of a disturbance in Burien. Initial reports said Le wielded a knife in the incident, but the review concluded all he had on him was a ballpoint pen.

For Le’s parents, reliving what happened to their son is painful.

But they continue to speak out. Speaking through an interpreter at a King County Council meeting, where an independent investigator blasted the sheriff’s office’s handling of the shooting, Tommy’s mother Dieu Ho said scrutiny is important in order to bring justice to her son.

“To bring out the truth about his passing away,” she said. “I miss him so much I don’t know what to say.”

Mike Gennaco, who conducted the external review, gave the King County Sheriff’s Office a failing grade. He told county council members that the review didn’t include critical facts.

“The fact that the fatal rounds to Mr. Le were in the back. The fact that Le was not moving toward the deputy who used deadly force when he was shot in the back. The fact that the other deputies on scene did not believe that Le presented a threat to them,” Gennaco said.

And Gennaco says the sheriff’s department doesn’t seem interested in learning from its mistakes. Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht pushed back on that assessment, saying changes in the review process have been made. And, she says, new state laws requiring more independent investigations will improve things, as well.

Wednesday’s presentation came a day after a split decision by the council to remove Deborah Jacobs as director of the county’s Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), which initiated the independent review of the Le case.

The council appointed Adrienne Wat, OLEO’s deputy director, to serve as interim director while a national search is conducted for a permanent replacement for Jacobs, who led the office for four years. Earlier this year, an independent investigation concluded Jacobs had engaged in discriminatory and inappropriate conduct with staff. The council voted 5-4 not to renew her contract.

Council Chair Claudia Balducci supported the change in leadership, while also stressing that the office’s great work on police accountability will continue.

“We have made great strides under the current leadership and we will continue to make great strides,” Balducci said. “This isn’t about commitment to law enforcement oversight, this is about positioning the office to be best able to do their best work.”

Councilmember Dave Upthegrove voted against the decision. He says that while he accepts the investigation and its findings, Jacobs also brought important qualities to the independent oversight body.

“Particularly as it relates to community engagement, particularly as it relates to the tenacity in which she has represented us and our interests in ensuring civilian oversight of the sheriff’s office,” Upthegrove said.

Many praised the work of OLEO, as it relates to the Le case, in a news conference Wednesday. Family and supporters gathered at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) in South Seattle, to renew their demands for justice for Le.

Jeff Campiche, an attorney representing the family in a federal lawsuit against the sheriff’s office that’s expected to go to trial soon, told reporters that the handling of the Le case can only be described as a cover-up by the King County Sheriff’s Office.    

“It’s just wrong,” Campiche said. “And it’s time that the questions were asked to the county officials what they’re going to do about it.”  

State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos
Credit Parker Miles Blohm / KNKX
State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos

Michael Byun, executive director of ACRS, said Le’s shooting is just one example of unjustified violence against members of the Asian community at the hands of police.

“We want officers involved to be held accountable in his death,” Byun said. “What happened to Tommy Le could happen again. And it must never, ever happen again.”

State Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, a Democrat representing the 37th District, spoke during Wednesday’s news conference. She said among her priorities heading into the 2021 legislative session is improving police reforms, including Initiative 940, so citizens can regain trust and faith in law enforcement agencies who are “responsive and responsible” to the people.

“This moment and your pain is not going to evaporate,” Tomiko said to Le’s family.

KNKX's Rebekah Way contributed to this report.