Hmong activist says police, courts 'betrayed' community

Community activist
Community activist Tou Ger Xiong says the verdict shows that Minneapolis police officers discriminate against people of color.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Activist Tou Ger Xiong, from the Coalition for Community Relations, said the verdict sends the message that people of color cannot trust the police.

A jury ruled Thursday that Officer Jason Andersen did not use excessive force when he shot Fong Lee. The verdict was announced before Lee's family could get to the courtroom to hear it in person.

"This does nothing more than to reaffirm the fact that we should fear police and members of law enforcement," Xiong said. "Because it is saying to us, 'Watch out, if a cop thinks you pose a threat, you will be killed, you will shot, you will be killed.'"

Fong Lee's sister
Shoua Lee, Fong Lee's sister, read a statement from the family which said her parents came to the U.S. from Laos in 1988 to find freedom and safety. "And on July 22, 2006, over 20 years later, that feeling of safety was shattered."
MPR Photo/Tim Post

Xiong said the police department and the courts have betrayed the Hmong community.

"It's unfortunate that they feel that way," said Attorney Chris Wachtler, who regularly represents both the St. Paul and Minneapolis Police Federations.

He was not involved in the Lee case and wouldn't comment on its specifics, but he spoke on behalf of the police union.

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"Obviously, there are two different perspectives and beliefs on what happened in this case, but the jury decided what it did, apparently," Wachtler said. "If you point a gun at a cop, which is as I understand it what the jury established happened here because the officer did not use excessive force, you are going to have problems.

"If there is some sort of a riff between the Hmong community and the police department, then I suppose communication never hurts and these things can be talked about. I think it's probably too early to know exactly what is going to happen."

Fong Lee's family
The parents and sister of Fong Lee hug each other after a federal jury ruled against them in their wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Minneapolis. Fong Lee, then 19, was shot and killed by a Minneapolis police officer in 2006.
MPR Photo/Brandt Williams

He said officers were not surprised by the verdict because the evidence was clear. He said allegations that officers planted a gun were farfetched.

In a statement, Police Chief Tim Dolan said the allegations of misconduct against Officer Andersen have been inflammatory. He said he hopes police and community members can begin to move forward and heal.

But Michelle Gross, who heads Communities United Against Police Brutality, said that will be difficult. Calls to her organization reporting police brutality are up sharply this spring. She blames Chief Dolan.

"You know, I think that Chief Dolan isn't controlling his police officers very well and I think that this verdict sends a message to police that they can get away with whatever they want to," she said. "I think it is a very bad situation and it will lead to bad things happening this summer."

Communities United Against Police Brutality has set up a number of public meetings next month to collect testimony on police misconduct. Gross plans to deliver the testimony to the U.S. House Judiciary Committee.

Family members of Fong Lee expressed their anger Thursday at a verdict exonerating the Minneapolis police officer who shot and killed the 19-year-old in 2006.

Youa Vang Lee, Fong Lee's mother and the named plaintiff for the lawsuit, burst into tears as she walked toward a row of cameras and microphones. Her daughter, Shoua, choked back tears as she read a statement on behalf of the rest of the family.

Shoua Lee says her parents came to the U.S. from Laos in 1988 to find freedom and safety. "And on July 22, 2006, over 20 years later, that feeling of safety was shattered."

That was the night Fong Lee was shot and killed by Officer Jason Andersen. Andersen says he saw Lee with a gun and chased him. The officer said he shot Lee because he was afraid for his life. An all-white jury of eight men and four women ruled Andersen did not use excessive force.

Since the shooting, the Lee family has questioned the police version of events. They believe that Lee was unarmed, and that an officer planted a gun next to Lee's body. Shoua Lee says her family's legal fight is not over.

"Our quest for truth does not end today," she said. "We will continue to seek answers. We ask that you respect our wish to not take any questions at this time."

A Lee family lawyer did not immediately return a call for comment. The Minneapolis city attorney's office released a written statement saying, "We did not seek to try the case in the press, but in the courtroom, where evidence takes precedence over allegations. Here, the evidence, as found by the jury, vindicates Officer Andersen."

It's not known yet whether the Lee family will appeal yesterday's verdict. The family has been calling for an independent investigation into the shooting and the handling of the case.