Tommy Le’s death was unfathomable to the Vietnamese American community.
Hours before he was supposed to walk the stage at his June 2017 alternative high school graduation, Le was shot and killed by a King County sheriff’s deputy in Burien, Washington, a town just south of Seattle. Police were responding to reports of a man threatening residents and acting bizarrely.
While police originally said the 20-year-old Vietnamese American was armed with a knife and lunged at the officer who shot him, the department revealed more than a week later that he was holding a pen. Two of the three bullets the officer fired at Le hit him in his back.
Toxicology reports showed Le had the hallucinogen LSD in his system. The King County sheriff’s review panel concluded last August that the deputy was justified in firing at Le.
The shooting shocked the community, said Linh Thai, the director of the nonprofit Vietnamese Community Leadership Institute of Seattle.
For most Vietnamese Americans in the area — many of them refugees who fled Southeast Asia in the last half-century — “respect is automatically given to those in authority,” the U.S. Army veteran said. And, according to federal data, Asian Americans are the least likely to be killed by police.
But Le’s death left a “gap of distrust.”
“If Tommy got killed in the way that he did, what about me?” Thai asked. “We could all be targeted. Nobody is safe.”
In the months after Le’s shooting, Thai persuaded other Asian Americans in Washington state to join a broad coalition of Native American tribes, black leaders and nearly 20 other ethnically and ideologically diverse groups that were already working to change how police treat residents of color. They would no longer be silent.
The group successfully pushed a 2018 ballot initiative that aims to strengthen police training by requiring police in Washington state to undergo more de-escalation and mental health training, administer first aid after a use of deadly force, and cooperate with an independent investigation into the use of deadly force.
Andrè Taylor, who led the effort for change in policing after his brother was shot and killed by police in 2016, said the only way they could get statewide support was to unify many different groups for a grassroots movement.
“We’ve lost so many times,” Taylor said. “We’ve been fighting these incidences separately, and we needed each other now more than ever.”
The Washington coalition gathered more than 350,000 signatures for a ballot initiative that passed with 60% support last November. When members of the law enforcement community saw the initiative had statewide support, they came to the table to help.
Police kill Native Americans, black people and Latinos at a higher rate than white people, according to a CNN analysis of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Since the Black Lives Matter movement gained prominence in 2013, much of the public focus has been on African Americans. But broader racial and ethnic coalitions pushed the recent changes in policing practices in a handful of states, said Juan Cartagena, president and general counsel at LatinoJustice, a New York-based civil rights group.
“We can’t change policing practices and policing culture unless we have solidarity among all groups affected,” he said. “All these groups had an equal say and had a very clear sense that policing practices based on excessive force don’t make us safer and create more distrust in communities.”
Activism against questionable policing practices has been strong in communities of color, including among Latinos, for the past half-century, said Cartagena, alluding to Mexican-American activists in California and Puerto Rican activists in New York.
In California, Latino communities took to the streets several times over the past five years protesting fatal police shootings of unarmed Latino teenagers. Latino activists from Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and Bakersfield were leaders in the recent debate to change the use-of-force standard in California that is now moving through the state legislature, Cartagena said.
Ethnically diverse coalitions also pushed for changes to New York’s policy on independent police investigations, Florida’s policy on felon voting rights policy in 2018 and New Jersey’s policy on independent police investigations in 2019, Cartagena said.
Washington state has a history of such cross-cultural activism. When Cartagena fought for the restoration of felon voting rights a decade ago, he recalled, Washington was the only state where he saw Latinos, blacks and Native Americans working together to overturn the voting ban.
Even so, the passage of the ballot initiative last year in Washington state was “extremely unusual,” said Christy Lopez, who led the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division’s investigation and consent decree negotiations with the Ferguson Police Department after the 2014 shooting of Michael Brown.
Democratic state Sen. Manka Dhingra, a county prosecutor, had never seen that level of trust between law enforcement and civil rights activists. It came down to understanding perspectives on both sides of the table, she said.
“It was awe-inspiring.”
The Effect on Communities
More than three years after police officers shot and killed Jacqueline Salyers as she sat in her car, her family and fellow Puyallup tribal members are still not satisfied with the official account from Tacoma police of the 2016 shooting.
Salyers’ boyfriend, a seven-time felon, was wanted on drug, firearms and robbery charges. Two weeks earlier, her family warned police she was the victim of domestic violence and being held involuntarily.
Officers eventually caught up with them. When two officers approached their idling car, Salyers attempted to drive away. An officer opened fire, shooting four times. One bullet hit her in the side of her head, killing her. Officers were cleared of wrongdoing.
Tribal tradition calls for putting away pictures and mementos of deceased loved ones for a year. Salyers’ mother, Lisa Earl, couldn’t bring herself to do it. She wanted to be reminded of her loss.
Native Americans are killed by police at a higher rate than any other racial group, according to CDC data. And non-tribal police are responsible for 83% of deadly encounters with Native Americans, according to a 2017 study from Claremont Graduate University.
When civil rights activists approached the Puyallup tribe about the 2018 police training initiative, members reached out to every tribe across Washington state to gather signatures and support.
They called it the “Rez-to-Rez” tour. All 29 tribes in Washington got on board — the first time in their history that they came together on a statewide campaign. The moment was encapsulated by tribal council member Tim Reynon, standing in front of the 268-foot waterfalls of the Snoqualmie Tribe on a rainy, early winter day as the water thundered down.
“As their elders talked, I had this overwhelming feeling come over me,” Reynon recounted from his office, clinching his fists. “When we come together as a tribal people, when we unify as tribes of this state, we are as powerful as those falls.”
Police Came to the Table
Beyond the hundreds of thousands of signatures, polls showed clear statewide support for the Washington ballot initiative in the months leading up to the November election. Even the Seattle Seahawks professional football team donated $25,000 to the cause.
When it became apparent the initiative was going to pass, the Washington State Fraternal Order of Police, a chapter of the biggest police union in the country, representing 3,000 of the state’s 11,000 police officers, joined negotiations.
Union leaders realized they had to take a leadership role in negotiations to change the negative narrative surrounding policing and add clarity to proposals that may not be “practical,” said James Schrimpsher, the legislative chairman of the Washington chapter.
“We recognize that every profession has to change,” he said. “Status quo can only work for so long. We’re going to try a different approach. We’re going to be part of this collaborative process, be at the table and engage.”
To be sure, many members of the law enforcement community rejected the initiative process. Mike Solan, president of the Council of Metropolitan Police and Sheriffs, was one of the most vocal opponents of the initiative.
“[This initiative] is not about training,” the Seattle SWAT officer told KIRO Radio in October. “What this is truly about is to make it very, very easy to politically prosecute police officers for doing their jobs.”
Solan declined to speak to Stateline.
Previous ballot initiative attempts failed, in part due to opposition from law enforcement organizations. But this latest attempt was different.
“Police are very responsive to public opinion,” said Lopez, who is now a Georgetown Law professor. “It’s important that the public is educated and speak out and vote. Once law enforcement knows what the public believes, that can be a very powerful motivator for change.”
But in other parts of the country, Lopez said it is still challenging to get police to work with activists to implement new policing policies.
A year after then-Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, a Democrat, sued Chicago over police practices and civil rights violations, Madigan, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel, also a Democrat, and Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson negotiated a consent decree in 2018 to reform the Chicago Police Department — a rare partnership. A federal judge approved the consent decree in January.
The lawsuit was inspired by a U.S. Justice Department investigation into Chicago’s police practices. As part of the agreement, an independent monitoring team will issue public statements every six months on the city’s progress in implementing required changes to policing.
The Fraternal Order of Police’s Chicago chapter pushed back against the consent decree, saying it wanted to be part of the decision-making process for policing changes.
Both Democrats and Republicans in the California State Assembly helped pass a bill in May that will change the standards for police use of deadly force, from when officers deem it “reasonable” to a judgment “based on the totality of the circumstances.”
The bill was introduced shortly after Sacramento Police killed Stephon Clark, an unarmed black man, in his grandparents’ backyard March 18. The death inspired mass protests in the state capital. A coalition of multiracial groups advocated for the legislation, which was widely opposed by police unions.
The bill now heads to the state Senate, where there is strong support. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom has indicated he will sign the bill into law.
In New Orleans, police launched a peer intervention program in 2016, which encourages officers to monitor one another to prevent misconduct and encourage better policing.
These changes are a bright spot in a broader, “deeply troubling” trend under the Trump administration, Lopez said. Over the past two years, the U.S. Department of Justice has shifted away from the police oversight that was commonplace during the Barack Obama presidency, backing away from consent decrees and turning its focus to officer safety.
Officials at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, with the input of community groups, are working this summer to rewrite the rules for de-escalation and mental health training. The new rules will also cover requirements under the new law that officers administer first aid after a use of force and undergo a mandatory independent investigation into a deadly use of force.
Under the changes to the use-of-force standard, prosecutors no longer must prove officers acted with “evil intent” or “malice” if they are charged for using excessive force. The standard was impossibly narrow, proponents of the initiative said. A Seattle Times investigation found that 213 people were killed by Washington police between 2005 and 2014. Only one police officer was charged.
The new standard asks if a “reasonable” officer would find the use of force necessary.
What happened in Washington state is “leaps and bounds above what’s happened in other states,” said Alison Holcomb, the political director of the ACLU of Washington. But what’s important to see now, she said, is whether the community and law enforcement can continue talking to each other.
“It was beautiful for the communities to build those bridges and come together,” Holcomb said. “But for what purpose? Where do we go from here? The real implementation is how the language takes life.”
There are challenges. It’s been difficult to recruit new officers because of negative public perception, Schrimpsher said, but he plans to continue collaborating with community leaders.