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Gone In 41 Seconds -- Police Quick to Kill Korean Artist

New America Media, Investigative Report, Words: Kenneth Kim//Photos: Sangjin Kim of The Korea Daily Posted: Feb 24, 2008

Editor's Note: The police shooting of 25-year-old Michael Cho at the end of last year has rocked the Southern California Korean community. An investigation into the incident shows that the police quickly turned to deadly force when they confronted Cho, who they suspected of vandalism. Kenneth Kim is a reporter for New America Media.

LA HABRA, Calif. -- On the afternoon of December 31, 2007, two police officers encountered Michael Cho in the parking lot of a liquor store in La Habra, a small, generally quiet city in Orange County, California. It didnt take long for the meeting to go bad. After less than a minute the officers unleashed a barrage of bullets on the 25-year-old artist, ending his life - and setting off an ongoing cascade of protests across Southern Californias Korean American community.

Friends and neighbors of Cho laid flowers and lighted candles at the scene of the shooting.

Computerized police logs obtained by New America Media suggest the officers quickly turned to deadly force when they confronted Cho, whom they suspected of vandalism.

According to the Computer Automated Transcript documenting the incident, at 2:04 p.m. the cops contacted their dispatcher to say theyd located Cho. Out with the subject near the liquor store, the transcript reads.

Just 41 seconds later they radioed dispatch again, this time saying theyd shot the suspect and now needed paramedics to attend to him.

Shot fired, Suspect down, Medics requested, reads the transcript.

In the aftermath of the killing, Chos family has publicly condemned the department, saying the officers rushed to shoot Cho, rather than using less lethal tools like pepper spray or Taser stun guns to subdue him.

The police killed my son like a dog, Chos mother, Honglan Cho, recently told the La Habra City Council. According to Shelly Lynn Kaufman, an attorney for the Cho family, the fusillade of bullets left ten holes in his body.

Honglan Cho wails over her son's body. Sungman Cho, behind his wife, silently looks at the coffin.

But the La Habra Police Department, which has not revealed the names of the cops involved in the shooting, stands by its personnel. In a press release, the department said the officers fired on Cho because he was armed with a tire iron and was preparing to attack one of the officers. According to the department, Cho was agitated and ignored orders to drop the tire iron - instead, police say, Cho strode toward one of the cops and raised the tire iron above his head.

Chos supporters, whove organized a string of vigils and protests a Facebook page dedicated to Cho claims some 3,000 members - are skeptical of the departments account: Cho, they contend, was unable to run, let alone attack other people due to a lifelong leg disability that left him with a severe limp. In fact, they argue, Cho was trying to leave the scene peacefully when he was slain.

During a Feb. 19 candle light vigil in front of La Habra City Hall Michael Chos friends wore sweatshirts bearing his likeness.

The Orange County District Attorneys Office is probing the matter.

Citing the ongoing investigation into Chos death, the La Habra Police Department declined to comment for this story, and at this juncture many questions linger. For starters, its not clear exactly what crime police were investigating when they came across Cho, a graduate of UCLAs art program who was hoping to attend graduate school at Yale. Initially, police said Cho was suspected of using spray paint to graffiti this town of 65,000 some 27 miles south of Los Angeles. But one person who called the police on Cho told New America Media that Cho had been on a rampage, smashing car windshields and vandalizing five or six vehicles, including his SUV.

His final moments also remain cloaked in mystery. A surveillance tape recorded by a liquor store video camera shows Cho walking toward the two officers, who have guns drawn and appear to be yelling at him. Its impossible to know what the cops are saying since the tape doesnt have any audio. Cho brings his right hand to his mouth and appears to hold an object, which hangs by his side. With both officers pointing their guns at him, Cho strides out of the picture. As he walks off, the cops chase after him on foot.

VIDEO: Liquor store video of police confronting Cho from KTAN -TV, an affiliate of the Korea Times.

The actual shooting, however, happened beyond the cameras range, thus leaving out a crucial piece of evidence that might buttress the claims of either the police or Chos family.

Still, in the view of Honglan Cho, who is considering filing a civil suit, the surveillance tape shows that her son was very calm and relaxed and not a threat to police.

Criminology professor Geoffrey P. Alpert, an expert on police practices, cautions against reaching conclusions about Chos death before all the facts emerge. Sometimes officers behavior seems easy for us to break down frame by frame, said Alpert, who teaches at the University of South Carolina. Its not fair to use hindsight. You have to look at what an officer knows at the time when he or she is acting.

This isnt first time in recent memory that La Habra officers have killed a suspect. According to the Orange County District Attorneys Office, since July of 2004 La Habra cops have been embroiled in four shootings, killing two suspects and wounding two others. The record makes the La Habra Police Department one of the most deadly law enforcement agencies in a county with over 20 different municipal police departments.

Sensing the concern of Korean community, La Habra Police Chief Dennis Kies asked the Orange County Human Relations Commission to arrange a meeting Jan 4.

According to the Orange County District Attorneys Office, since July of 2004, 49 police shootings involving 17 different police departments have occurred in Orange County; the shootings killed 35 and injured 21. The Santa Ana and Anaheim police departments, among the largest cities in the county, tallied the highest number of shootings with eight incidents each, followed by the far smaller La Habra and Fullerton departments, which were each embroiled in four shooting incidents. According to the most recent FBI statistics, Santa Ana and Anaheim employ 360 and 410 officers respectively. La Habra has 70 officers and Fullerton has 158 officers.

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