An autopsy found that Tommy Le was shot twice in the back during an fatal encounter with a King County sheriff’s deputy. Photo courtesy Career Link

An autopsy found that Tommy Le was shot twice in the back during an fatal encounter with a King County sheriff’s deputy. Photo courtesy Career Link

New report calls for increased transparency from King County Sheriff’s Office

The fatal shooting of Tommy Le served as a case study for researchers.

Citing the distribution of inaccurate information by the King County Sheriff’s Office following the 2017 fatal shooting of Tommy Le by a deputy, a new report says that the law enforcement agency needs to reform its public communication policies.

The 33-page analysis, conducted pro bono by the University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information on behalf of Sheriff’s Office official watchdog, the King County Office of Law Enforcement Oversight (OLEO), argues that Sheriff’s Office should work proactively to provide timely information about police shootings, acknowledge and correct inaccurate previously distributed information, ensure efforts are made to reach non-English speaking populations, notify the family members of victims of police shooting incidents prior to contacting the media, and refrain from publicizing any prior arrests of the individual that did not result in a conviction or guilty plea.

“What appears in the press about an incident has a profound impact on the public’s perception of an incident, as well as on the loved ones of anyone harmed during an interaction with police,” said OLEO Director Deborah Jacobs in a statement released on a June 12, after the report was presented to the King County Council’s Law and Justice Committee. “It’s important that the Sheriff’s Office have policies that build trust and legitimacy with communities by ensuring communications originating from their office are accurate, timely, and respectful.”

As a “case study” in flawed agency messaging on a high-profile police shooting, the report examined the agency’s communications in the aftermath of the death of Tomme Le, a unarmed 20-year-old Vietnamese American Burien resident who was shot by a King County Sheriff’s deputy last summer. Initially, the sheriff’s office reported that Le was holding a knife or “some sort of sharp object.” Following inquiries by Seattle Weekly, the agency revealed—nine days after the fact—that the object was merely a pen. An autopsy report later found that Le had been shot twice in the back.

“Much of the resulting press coverage [based off the initial release on the incident from the Sheriff’s office] seized on the idea that Le wielded a knife, and the Sheriff’s Office did not correct any of the inaccurate reports. ” the report reads. “On June 23, after an article in the Seattle Weekly broke the story, the Sheriff’s Office issued a second statement clarifying that only a pen had been found in Le’s possession, not a knife as previously reported.”

“The Sheriff’s Office did not use social media to update the public about Le’s case,” the report continues. “No details about Le’s shooting appear on the King County Sheriff’s Office Facebook page at all. The Twitter account operated by the Sheriff’s public information officer, @KingcosoPIO, referenced the shooting twice: first to say that the public information officer was heading to the scene, and then later on the morning of June 14, to share a link to the initial Sheriff’s Office press release. No updates were posted after the date of the shooting, even after additional clarifying information came to light.”

This portion of the report was redacted in copies sent out by OLEO, but Jacobs told Seattle Weekly that this was because the investigation into Le’s death is technically still ongoing and public disclosure limitations written into the King County Police Officers Guild collective-bargaining contract. “My office is restricted from publicly discussing matters that are still under investigation,” she said. “Out of an abundance of caution, we decided to redact it.”

However, she said she wanted to get the report in front of the public without delay, hence the release of a censored version. “This is too important to wait. We need the policy change as soon as possible.”

Following the release of the report, the Sheriff’s Office sent out a statement stating that they had reviewed the documents with OLEO director Jacobs back in February and that the department is committed to transparency. “We told Ms. Jacobs then, and want to assure the public now, that transparent and truthful communication is one of the Sheriff’s top priorities … Sheriff Johanknecht is committed to continuing to have a transparent and open relationship with both the media and the public,” the release stated.

Ryan Abbott, a Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, did not respond to questions about whether the agency would incorporate any of the recommendations of the report.

At the time of the Le shooting, Sheriff Johanknecht was a precinct commander of unincorporated areas of Southern King County near Burien, sometimes assisting the Burien captain on administrative matters. However, in a statement to Seattle Weekly, Johanknecht said that she “had nothing to do with the [Tommy Le] investigation.” Abbott clarified that the messaging decisions regarding the Tommy Le incident were made by former Sheriff John Urquhart, and subsequently passed down through the chain of command.

At the county council meeting where Jacobs presented the Brechner Center report, family members of Tommy Le—and their lawyer, Jeff Campiche—spoke about the impact of the misinformation about Tommy on their family and their frustration with the county.

“It’s been a year of unending grief, shame, and humiliation for us, and the only thing we got from the county was the word ‘sorry,’” said Xuyen Le, Tommy’s aunt. “So on this anniversary of Tommy’s death, we’re begging for more, real action, real change, accountability … we will not give up until the county decides to take responsibility for what happened to Tommy.”

“We believe, to avoid public outrage of an unarmed student of color, the Sheriff’s Office intentionally misstated the truth about the killing,” Campiche said. “Misleading the press is to mislead the public. The Le family understands this and they’re asking that there be some consequence for those actions.”

Currently, the Le family is suing the King County Sheriff’s Office and former Sheriff Urquhart in a federal civil rights case for damages over the death of Tommy. The trial date is slated for June 2019.

Last year, the Le family called the county’s inquest system for handling officer involved deaths biased in favor of deputies, leading King County Executive Dow Constantine to convene a task force to analyze the process. The county is currently reviewing the task force’s recommendations.

_______

This story was first published in Seattle Weekly.

More in News

Issaquah residents file for November 2019 general election

Residents in the city of Issaquah and the Issaquah School Districts have… Continue reading

King County Councilman Reagan Dunn sent a letter to the FBI asking for them to help investigate Allan Thomas (pictured), who is under investigation for stealing more than $400,000 of public funds and skirting election laws in an Enumclaw drainage district. Screenshot from King 5 report
King County Council requests report on special districts in wake of fraud allegations

Small, local special districts will face more scrutiny following Enumclaw drainage district case.

Issaquah High School employee one of five confirmed with measles

School urges families to monitor children for signs.

The Marquee on Meeker Apartments, 2030 W. Meeker St. in Kent, will feature 492 apartments and 12,000 square feet of retail. The first phase of 288 apartments is expected to be completed in early 2020. Developers are targeting people in their 20s and 30s to rent their high-end, urban-style apartments. Steve Hunter/staff photo
Housing study pokes holes in conventional wisdom

High construction and land costs will incentivize developers to build luxury units.

Eviction reform passed by state Legislature

Tenant protections included longer notices and more judicial discretion.

Legislators budgeted more than $900 million for the Eastside

Issaquah residents will see the state invest $68.4 million in capital and transportation projects.

Madison Miller / staff photo
                                Influence the Choice held its 7th annual video contest awards ceremony on April 30 at Issaquah High School.
IFC hosts 7th annual video contest award ceremony

45 videos were submitted for video contest.

Issaquah wants feedback on transportation improvements for the future of the city

Issaquah is hosting a survey to collect public comment on their upcoming Mobility Master Plan.

Homelessness may be trending down after seven years

A press release from the annual count showed a reduction in people living without a home.

Most Read