A new report criticized how the King County Sheriff’s Office disseminated information about the controversial 2017 police shooting of a Burien man and recommended improvements to the department’s communications policy.
The study called “Transparency and Media Relations in High-Profile Cases” was authored by University of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom of Information and analyzed the way the Sheriff’s Office handled the shooting of 20-year old Tommy Le.
Le’s family has filed a lawsuit against King County, claiming the Sheriff’s Office lied in official statements to the media claiming he had a knife and lunged at deputies.
On June 14, 2017, several witnesses reported that Le was walking in a Burien neighborhood, yelling irrationally, carrying a knife, and threatening people nearby. Sheriff’s deputies responded to the scene, tried to subdue Le with a Taser, and then shot him. He later died at the hospital.
The Sheriff’s Office told reporters at the scene and later that day in a press release titled “Deputy shoots man claiming to be ‘The Creator'” that Le had a knife or a sharp object in his hand.
It wasn’t until more than a week later, when the Seattle Weekly broke the story, that the Sheriff’s Office confirmed Le only had a pen in his hand, not a knife.
The study said the department’s second press release the day the Weekly article was published “continued to refer to the weapon Le had as a knife or ‘whatever was in his hand'” and only clarified in the FAQ section that it was a pen.
According to the report, the Sheriff’s Office did not use social media to update the public about new developments in Le’s case.
“No updates were posted after the date of the shooting, even after additional clarifying information came to light,” said the author.
Deborah Jacobs, director of the Office of Law Enforcement Oversight, presented a redacted copy of the report to the King County Council’s Law and Justice Committee on Tuesday.
It recommended updating the department’s current policy with proactive accountability measures following police shootings and other critical incidents, including:
- Protocol for timely notification of families following critical incidents;
- Requirements to rapidly, publicly, and transparently acknowledge and correct inaccurate or misleading information with an explanation as to how the misinformation occurred;
The Le shooting happened during a previous administration, but Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht issued a statement Tuesday saying “transparent and truthful communication” is one of her top priorities.
“Since taking office, our administration has proactively released information and accompanying documentation quickly on a variety of issues,” the sheriff said.