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

MARK KLAAS, Kent Reporter 
                                Lynne Mayer, Summer Meals supervisor for the Kent School District, was recognized as a No Kid Hungry’s 2019 Summer Meals Hero.
A Summer Meals Hero

Kent School District supervisor is one of five people to earn national award

Turn off the screens and head into Covington

Chamber, city and the school district work together to get kids outside

Couples tried on costumes for fun selfies at the 2019 Covington Sausage and Cider Fest.
Pour Covington another

Residents enjoy annual Covington Sausage and Cider Fest

Photos by Haley Ausbun.
                                 Seniors in nearby care facilities took flight in a 1942 Boeing Stearman biplane at Renton Municipal Airport, offered by Ageless Aviation Dreams Foundation.
No age cap to fly

On Sunday, Aug. 11 and Monday Aug. 12 seniors from Burien, Mercer… Continue reading

The Facebook post that cried wolf

Local police are learning how to handle neighborhood watch groups on social media

From Tahoma High to Peru – Local athlete shines in swimming

Abbey Nardella will represent the U.S. in the Parapan American Games

Photos by Danielle Chastaine. 
                                 Students in the Barbells and Badges summer camp at Cedar Heights Middle School compete on team firefighter or team police on Friday, Aug. 9. Photo courtesy of the Covington Police Department.
Building relationships, one barbell at a time

Covington Police Chief helps students grow confidence through strength training

Training for rescues

Local firefighters aren’t just sitting and waiting for emergencies, they spend between… Continue reading

Photos by Haley Ausbun. The BackYardFarm, a local couple trying to help folks with small yards build their own farm, hosted an event July 27, where guests could meet the animals, feed the goats and eat food sourced from their own back yard.
Rentonites can have a farm, e-i-e-i-o

Urban farmers want to teach their neighbors how to be sustainable

Most Read