Why is Tommy Le Dead?

Tommy Le was killed by police officers on June 14th of this year.

Only hours away from his high school graduation ceremony at South Seattle Community College, 20-year-old Le, a Vietnamese immigrant, was shot by police officers in Burien, just outside of Seattle. According to authorities, they received calls in the early morning hours of the 14th that there had been gunshots in the area. Once on the scene, it appeared that a resident had fired a warning shot at Le, as he had allegedly been harassing the resident’s girlfriend.

It was reported that Le had been wielding a knife or sharp object, threatening people with it, pursuing them, crying out that he was “the creator” as well as “I am the killer.” It was also said that Le pounded on the door of a homeowner while yelling these things.

Two King County sheriff deputies confronted Le and reportedly tasered him when they say he charged at them. When the tasers did not stop Le, reports state that Sheriff’s deputy Cesar Molina opened fire on Le, shooting him three times and killing him. Deputies said they acted in self defense, as they claimed Le was holding a knife in his hand.

It wasn’t until the following week, when Seattle Weekly questioned the Sheriff’s Office that it was revealed that Le had in fact not been carrying a knife, but a pen instead.

An ink pen.

Even after Le was shot and dead at the scene, officers did not publicly acknowledge that Le’s “weapon” had been a pen. They proceeded to search Le’s home for a knife, as it was suspected that he had been carrying a knife, then had gone home and replaced it with the pen.

When the Sheriff’s office informed Le’s family of his death, they told them he had been armed with a knife.

At the time, the circumstances surrounding Le’s death lacked detail. What exactly happened? Why did two Sheriff’s deputies, officers trained to disarm assailants using non-lethal force, feel the need to shoot Le, hardly a hulking presence at a little over 100 pounds? Why did it take so long for the truth to come out about the pen?

Why further injure his family by telling them that their son was an armed aggressor at the time of his death?

What happened that night?

Until recently, the facts were hazy. Then Le’s autopsy report was released a few days ago.

According to the autopsy, Le was shot twice in the back, once in the back of his hand. There is no way that Le was advancing upon the officers, as reported, if the bullet entry wounds are on his back. If the officers’ story was true, then he would have been shot in the chest.

Additionally, Le’s toxicology report came back clean; the Sheriff’s Office has requested further tests for “LSD or mushrooms” and is awaiting results. And though Le may have been suffering from a “mental health crisis” at the time, “he had no history of mental illness” and his peers and teachers characterized him as easy to talk to, “bubbly”, and “goofy”. Le had no criminal record.

The Le family is filing a federal civil rights violation lawsuit and a $20 million wrongful death lawsuit against King County, the King County Sheriff’s Office, and Sheriff John Urquhart.

Again, what happened on the night Tommy Le was killed?

Whatever occurred, it seems clear that Le should not be dead. He was unarmed, in mental distress (perhaps in need of help instead of aggression), and was not  “charging” at officers as previously stated. At least one aspect of Tommy Le’s death, as reported by police, appears to be a lie. At least one aspect.

The question that remains, the question that adds an even more upsetting angle to Le’s case, is what did Le’s race have to do with the shooting?

Would Le have been shot if he was white?

Though statistically, Black Americans are “more than twice as likely to be killed by police than Whites or Asians” South and Southeast Asian people in America are more likely to be killed by police than East Asians. “Middle Eastern and South Asian Americans are 3.5 times more likely — and, Southeast Asian Americans are nearly six times more likely.” 

And furthermore, why has there been so little coverage of Le’s killing? Why does a Vietnamese-American get fewer headlines?

Not to insinuate that it is a contest regarding police violence enacted upon people of color – what a horrible contest that would be – but bringing awareness to cases of race-related crimes perpetrated by officers of the law can only strengthen public awareness that there is a problem. That simply being “not white” in America can be an admission of guilt punishable in the most extreme manner.

Like Michael Brown, like Philando Castile, like Charleena Lyles, like Fong Lee – a 19-year-old Hmong-American shot by police, who then allegedly planted a gun by his body to strengthen their defense – like all of these Americans who were profiled because of their race and nothing more, Tommy Le deserves justice. And as Americans, we deserve to know the truth about Tommy Le’s death.

Le’s case is still pending, with the Sheriff’s Office claiming that they cannot comment at this time.

Will Tommy Le get justice? With every case, one can only hope that this time things will be different.

Tommy Le’s family is raising funds to assist with funeral expenses and legal costs.


Louise Hung

An American writer living in Japan, Louise is a contributor and researcher for the Order of the Good Death and Ask a Mortician. You can find her on Twitter @LouiseHung1.