By Jack Mayne The shooting death last year of Tommy Le – a 20-year-old Vietnamese man who was wielding a pen and not a knife – was ruled to have been justified and within King County Sheriff’s office policy, a review board has ruled. The shooting death in Burien of Le on June 14 last year by a King County deputy sheriff was justified according to the Use of Force Review Board, said a report released Wednesday (Aug. 22). Lawsuit filed The family of Tommy Le, 20, told Seattle Times reporter Lewis Kamb last January that their son wanted to be a firefighter. The family has filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit against King County, contending Le’s death was partly the result of “racially selective police practices,” and that the Sheriff’s Office lied in official statements saying Le had a knife and lunged at deputies, the Times reported in January. At the filing, attorney Jeff Campiche told the Times that the Sheriff’s Office “absolutely knew” Le had no knife within seconds after the June 13 shooting, nonetheless deputies told the public and family members otherwise. Campiche told reporter Kamb that deputies also later intentionally concealed from their police reports about the incident that two of the three bullets that struck Le hit him in the back, he said. “It’s hard to be shot in the back if you’re lunging at the police officer that shot you,” Campiche said. Mental impairment The lawsuit noted Le was “suffering from some type of mental impairment or confusion” and needed help. Campiche also acknowledged Le had a trace amount of LSD in his system, but said that has “no legal consequence on the unlawfulness of the shooting of Tommy Le.” The lawyer also said it’s still uncertain whether a pen found about 20 feet from Le’s body after the shooting was in fact in Le’s possession, noting that it’s of the type commonly used by government offices. He added that the Sheriff’s Office “looked very hard for a knife” but couldn’t find one. The lawsuit further contends that Deputy Cesar Molina’s fatal shooting of Le was partly the product of “racially selective police practices” caused by a lack of proper training, supervision and policies within the Sheriff’s Office. The alleged use of excessive use of deadly force and racial factors both violated Le’s constitutional rights, the suit claims. The Review Board’s memo said that when deputies first encountered Le, Deputy Cesar Molina and Master Police Officer Tanner Owens first employed verbal de-escalation techniques consistent with their training. Less than lethal options “When verbal commands to stop and drop the object in his hand did not work, the deputies tried to create distance and space between themselves and Mr. Le,” the review board wrote. “Both the deputies chose to deploy the less lethal option of their Tasers. “At one point, Mr. Le moved within five feet of Master Police Officer Owens, holding what was believed to be a knife in a clenched fist, and moving forward rapidly.” Because “less-lethal tactics (Taser) did not stop Mr. Le from continuing to charge toward the deputies, and civilian bystanders positioned behind them,” the Board concluded that Molina and Owens acted within policy when they drew their service weapons and Molina fired. The review board “concluded Molina feared Le would harm him, Owens or the people in the yard nearby, with the object he held in his hand.” Stabbing fear, gunshot The review board report said “the incident began when several residents came in contact with Le that night. They describe being fearful he may stab them.” Someone called 911. The review panel report said “evidence gathered shows Le advanced on a second resident, who was so fearful he would be stabbed he fired a shot from his personal handgun then “retreated inside his home, shut the door, and then heard what he believed was Mr. Le stabbing or striking the door.” The review panel report included a photograph of the damage to the door but analysis of the marks is “still pending” at the State Crime Lab. The Sheriff’s review report noted it included “photographs of knives taken, pursuant to a search warrant, from a nearby residence where Mr. Le was renting a room.” Two witnesses “independently chose a butterfly knife … resembling what they believe they saw in Le’s hand when the incident began several minutes before deputies arrived on scene.” Pen, not knife After the shooting the review report says “deputies discovered that Mr. Le was armed with a pen at the time of the confrontation with KCSO Deputies.” The review panel report says “it is not clear that events would have evolved differently even if deputies realized that Le held a pen. “A pen can be used as an improvised weapon,” said the review report. “Aimed at vulnerable parts of the body, like the face or throat, it can cause serious bodily injury if used to stab someone. In this case, Le was moving quickly toward the deputies with the object held in a clenched fist and did not acknowledge verbal commands to drop what he was holding, leading Deputy Molina to fear for his safety and the safety of others.” The review panel report says “Our hearts continue to go out to the Le family. They have lost a cherished son, brother, nephew and friend and we continue to be mindful of their loss and their grief.” Report delayed A change in the inquest process caused the report to be delayed, while “we waited for the county executive’s office to revise and implement a new inquest process. Because that process is still pending and it is not clear when a new process will be implemented,” the sheriff’s department believed it was “in the best interest of the community and the office to proceed without further delay and held its Use of Force Review Board on June 20, 2018.” Relevant files The Sheriff’s Office release numerous files, which can be accessed and downloaded below:


Senior Reporter Jack Mayne passed away in December, 2021. In his honor we have created the Jack Mayne Journalism Scholarship.