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DA Refuses to Charge Officers in Cho Case

New America Media, News Report, Kenneth Kim Posted: Jun 27, 2008

SANTA ANA, CA. -- Orange County District Attorneys Office concluded yesterday that the fatal shooting of a 25-year old Korean American by two La Habra police officers on the last years New Years Eve, moments after the officers confronted him, was justified.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckas and two senior prosecutors who reviewed the evidence revealed that the officers fired on Michael Cho because he was armed with a tire iron and was attacking one of the officers. Cho ignored repeated orders from the officers who had their guns drawn to drop it. Instead, he tried to attack one of the officers with it, according to the DAs Office.

These details of the police shooting were disclosed during at a meeting unusually hosted by Rackauckas himself to inform the local Korean American community about the factual and legal findings of a six-month of independent investigation. A handful number of Korean American Advisory Committees members, friends of Cho and the Cho familys attorneys attended.

We conducted an unbiased, thorough and independent investigation, but didnt find the police committed a crime. This is a justifiable homicide, said Rackauckas, whose office investigates all officer-involved shootings in the county.

He also said although no criminality was found, it didn't mean his Office endorse the officers' action.

Michael Cho, a graduate of UCLAs art program who was hoping to attend graduate school at Yale this fall, was shot and killed on the afternoon of December 31, 2007 in La Habra, a small bed-room town about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The fatal shooting stirred the local Korean American community to demand a transparent investigation.

Except for a tape of 911 calls Chos mother made to the police, statements of the two officers and that of six witnesses who either saw the actual shooting or the event that led to it, the findings were very much aligned with what La Habra Police Chief Dennis Kies had explained in January in a community meeting arranged by Orange County Human Relations Commission.

According to DAs office, the officers encountered Michael Cho in the parking lot of a liquor store in a strip mall. They initially suspected Cho of vandalism based on accounts of a witness who called the police to report on Chos rampage, smashing car windshields and damaging five or six vehicles.

Until the announcement, Chos final moments remained a mystery. A surveillance tape recorded without audio by a liquor store video camera doesnt show the whole incident in its entirety. It shows Cho walking toward the two officers, who have guns drawn and appear to be yelling at him. 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.

DAs office said that after walking away from the police Cho suddenly turned and walked toward one of the officers and tried to attack him with a tire iron. The officer fearing for his safety fired, and his partner also began firing. Standing about 15 to 20 feet from Cho, they fired 11 shots from two different angles, all of them hitting him.

Senior Assistant District Attorney Jim Tanizaki said the officers acted legally because Cho posed a threat of serious harm to them and others.

Asked why the officers tried to follow and block Chos path, Assistant District Attorney David Brent, with 23 years of experience, said no officers in those situations would let a suspect armed with a weapon to walk away.

Chos supporters werent content, and continued to raise the question of excessive use of force, saying the officers rushed to shoot Cho, rather than using less lethal tools like pepper spray or Taser guns to subdue the vandalism suspect. According to the DAs office, non-lethal weapons were available to the officer at the time of shooting.

Richard Choi Bertsch, a member of the commission, also alleged that the presentation by the prosecutors was made with a sole aim to justify why we cannot charge the officers rather than a more balanced view of looking at ways the police could have acted differently.

The only thing certain to me is the video. Cho doesn't seem to have any ill will to the officers. He calmly walks away,' said Bertsch, What I see in this meeting is pretty much why the officers are not guilty. He added that he would ask the federal authority to step in.

Susan K. Schroeder of the DA's Office said the purpose of her office's probe is simply to determine whether the officers committed a crime for which they can be prosecuted.

We are not allowed to decide whether we like these tactics... The laws give deference to police officers because they have to make split-second decisions. Its not about civil liability issues, said Schroeder, who is Korean American, Its a very tragic situation for everyone involved.

At the beginning of the presentation, to explain Chos erratic behavior on the fateful day the DAs office played a tape of 911 calls Chos mother made to police last year. Expressing frustration, Chos mother Honglan told a 911 dispatcher in April of last year that Michael was hallucinating and threatened her with a kitchen knife. Its also disclosed that Cho was arrested for a misdemeanor sexual battery in November of 2007. The autopsy showed a trace of marijuana in his system, and on the day of the shooting Cho was very upset at a Kaiser Permanente in Bellflower to which his parents had tried to have him committed. A security guard was called in, said the prosecutors.

However, Chos friends whove organized a string of vigils and protests interpreted it as an attempt of DAs office to destroy the image of their beloved friend by portraying him as a mentally disturbed man while protecting the identities of the officers and their backgrounds in secret.

Chos family attorney, Shelly Lynn Kaufman said the Chos family is filing a lawsuit against the La Habra City in a week.

Meanwhile, the City of La Habra and its police department released a statement announcing the result vindicating the officers and also offered condolences to the Cho family.

Kenneth Kim is a Los Angeles based writer with New America Media.

Related Articles:

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

Orange County Koreans Protest Police Shooting

Chicagos Police-Involved Shootings Among Highest for Big Cities

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