A sheriff's office review board in Washington state has concluded that a police officer who fatally shot a 20-year-old man “was justified and within department policy” for his use of force, the King County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement Wednesday.
The office’s Use of Force Review Board, which convenes after deputy-involved shootings, voted that deputy Cesar Molina’s use of force against Tommy Le was “intentional, justified, within policy and not due to inadequate or improper training,” according to a report by the board.
At around midnight on June 13, 2017, the Sheriff's Office received multiple 911 calls about gunfire and a man lunging “with a knife” in the city of Burien, a suburb of Seattle, according to a June 2017 Sheriff’s Office statement.
After deputies arrived on the scene, a witness identified Le as the suspect and pointed him out walking toward deputies while making stabbing motions, according to police.
Two deputies told Le to drop what he was holding, the Sheriff’s Office has said, but he allegedly continued advancing. The deputies then unsuccessfully used their Tasers before Molina then shot multiple times, hitting Le, according to the statement.
Le was pronounced dead at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle on June 14, 2017, the same day he was supposed to graduate from a high school completion program at South Seattle Community College, according to his family.
Le’s family has disputed the Sheriff’s Office account. More than a week after the incident, the sheriff's office said that Le was holding a pen in his hand at the time of the shooting.
And last September, the family released a copy of Le’s autopsy, which indicated that he was shot twice in the back and once in the wrist. Jeffrey Campiche, an attorney for the family, said then that the autopsy suggested that Le was shot from behind.
Campiche said Thursday that the family is disappointed but not surprised by the review board’s findings, noting that the process was not public or independent but conducted internally.
The family earlier this year filed a $20 million lawsuit against the Sheriff's Office and King County, alleging that they violated Le's Fourth Amendment right to be free from excessive force when detained and his parents' 14th Amendment right to a relationship with their child when he was killed. The lawsuit also alleges that the Sheriff's Office knew Le was not armed when he was shot and killed.
The Sheriff's Office said in its Wednesday release that while the deputies on scene believed Le had a knife, it isn't clear if events would have proceeded differently if they realized Le was holding a pen, as a pen could be used as an improvised weapon.
Campiche argued that a pen could not have been a deadly weapon in this instance.
“The idea that a 120-pound high school student presents a risk of serious injury or death to five trained deputies with a Bic pen tells you how bankrupt the finding is,” he said.
Campiche also noted that Wednesday's release did not mention findings from Le's autopsy.
“This is important because they conclude that he was attacking the deputy that shot him with the sharp object. In fact, he couldn’t have been attacking when he was shot because he was shot in the back,” he said.
The Sheriff’s Office declined to comment beyond the release, citing pending civil litigation.
Le's family declined to comment through a representative. Campiche said they are grieving and moving forward.
“They don’t have any children besides Tommy so they’re trying to be positive, but there’s really nothing they can do but wait for the trial,” he said.
A trial for the case is scheduled for June 3, 2019.