San Jose Police Shooting Rocks Vietnamese Community, Again

New America Media, Commentary, Raj Jayadev Posted: May 27, 2009

When a 27-year-old Vietnamese man was shot and killed at his home by San Jose police officers, the local community was struck by an unexpected feeling – familiarity.

Daniel Pham’s death comes at a time when the public is already suspicious and angry over the San Jose Police Department’s (SJPD) treatment of people of color. The SJPD is at the center of a controversy since reports found that Latinos and blacks were disproportionately over-represented in the city’s arrests for public intoxication and resisting arrest. But Pham’s death also reminds us of another young Vietnamese resident who was killed by San Jose police -- Cau Bich Tran.

While questions are still being asked about the May 10 shooting of Pham, the basic pattern that has been disclosed by the SJPD is sadly reminiscent of a 2003 incident involving a young Vietnamese mother, Cau Bich Tran, who was shot by San Jose police in her home. In Pham’s case, officers arrived at his home in response to a domestic disturbance call, after Pham reportedly cut his brother with a knife. Within three minutes after police arrived and found Pham in the backyard, allegedly with a knife, he was dead. According to reports by the San Jose Mercury News, Pham’s siblings at the time of the incident were yelling to officers not to kill him, and telling them that he was mentally ill.

Pham’s family yelled this warning to the officers because they’d heard of a case that had taken place six years earlier and was a defining moment in police and community relations in San Jose. Cua Bich Tran, 25 years old, was also shot and killed in her home when officers arrived responding to a domestic disturbance call, and shot her after police mistakenly took her vegetable peeler for a cleaver.

The Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office has called for the case to go to a grand jury, and the case is currently being looked into by an internal police investigation. But the recent death is an indicator that the city of San Jose has taken a step backwards in terms of police accountability since the killing of Cau Bich Tran. Despite massive public pressure and years of the appearance of due diligence, the city of San Jose not only did not improve police monitoring since Tran’s death; it is effectively even less equipped now than it was then.

In response to the Cau Bich Tran shooting, San Jose implemented improvements in its monitoring mechanism – the Independent Police Auditor (IPA) -- to build back any public confidence in the police that had been lost in the aftermath of the killing.

Yet, six years later, as the city responds to Pham’s death, it turns out the advances made after Tran’s death no longer exist. In short, the shooting death of Daniel Pham, killed by police in 2009, will undergo less scrutiny and review than the 2003 death of Cau Bich Tran. In a city that boasts innovation and forward thinking, we are going backwards when it comes to police accountability.

In 1999, the San Jose City Council provided the IPA a review of officer-involved shootings. Yet it was the Cua Bich Tran shooting that prompted the City Council to approve a host of specific policies aimed at providing assurances that officer-involved shootings were being monitored by an independent reviewer. At a 2004 joint meeting, the City Council authorized the IPA to be notified immediately after an officer-involved shooting, be given the ability to respond to the scene, be briefed by on-scene personnel and be given a copy of the Internal Affairs investigation documents. In 2005, the City Council authorized the SJPD to give copies of homicide reports for officer-involved shootings and in custody deaths.

From the improved ability to review these cases, the IPA office even developed its own “Officer-Involved Shooting Form,” which presented a number of critical questions to clarify whether a shooting could have been prevented and how thorough the Internal Affairs investigation was. These questions, conceptualized after the Tran shooting, would have been relevant to understanding Pham’s death. A comprehensive five-page audit form would answer such questions as: “Did the officers know the victim was mentally ill?” and “Was there time to retreat or reposition or re-evaluate?”

Yet despite the public’s push after the Tran death to activate these powers of review, these questions will not be asked by the IPA for Daniel Pham’s death. That’s because the IPA power to audit shooting deaths was rescinded by a controversial opinion offered by City Attorney Richard Doyle in 2007.

In an ironic twist, the Independent Police Auditor at the time, Barbara Attard, had approached City Council in order to expand the purview of the auditing process to include other officer-involved critical incidents, such as deaths involving Tasers. San Jose was the first large city in the country to arm each of its officers with the weapon in 2004, a direct response to the Tran case. Yet since its implementation, there have been seven Taser-involved deaths of civilians.

Rather than expand the audit to all critical incidents, the City Council claimed that the Independent Police Auditor actually could not audit any officer-involved incident. Within months of the Doyle opinion, the City Council voted to end Barbara Attard’s contract as the IPA, and many in the public, felt her dismissal was a consequence of her demands for more police accountability.

The diminished role of the IPA means that Daniel Pham’s death will bring more questions than answers, thus bringing the community back to 2003, when fear of police, particularly among immigrant communities, dominated San Jose streets and households.

But as the Pham family goes through the same grieving process that the Tran family did six years ago, a city too is mourning, wondering how we arrived here once again, and whether this time, we will learn from the loss.

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