A Suburban Horror, Revisited 

Local Korean Americans demand some official action regarding police shootings that killed two of their own.

There was no chanting or blowing of whistles. The highly unusual presence of about seventy Korean Americans outside Dublin's pristine City Hall last Tuesday evening, lit candles in hand, was demonstration enough. Grandmothers, mothers toting toddlers, men and women coming off work -- they came from around the East Bay to mark the six-month anniversary of the shooting deaths of two Korean men by Dublin police officers.

What happened the night of last August 11 was no street skirmish. The shootings occurred at the million-dollar Dublin home of 49-year-old Richard Kim and his wife Jeeyoung, who'd moved into the affluent neighborhood less than a month earlier. Police responding to a neighbor's report of loud noises entered the house and fatally shot Jeeyoung's brother, 61-year-old Kwang Tae Lee, who was visiting from Korea with his wife. Bullets also tore through a door, fatally wounding the man of the house hidden behind it. According to police reports, Lee, who spoke no English, seemed intoxicated and didn't heed orders to drop a knife he held in a "threatening manner."

Besides Dublin police statements justifying the use of force in the days after the killings, city and county authorities have given the public little to go on. It took months before Richard Kim's autopsy report was made public. A criminal investigation by Alameda County prosecutors is still weeks from completion, according to Dublin Police Chief Gary Thuman. And while the Alameda County Sheriff's Office -- which provides Dublin with its police officers under contract -- has completed its own inquiry, the report remains under wraps. Oakland attorney John Burris, who in January filed a claim against Alameda County on behalf of Jeeyoung Kim, calls the delays "highly troubling." Dublin Police Lieutenant Glenn Moon counters that, given the amount of evidence, the DNA analysis, interviews, and crime lab trajectory report, the timeline isn't unreasonable.

Reasonable or not, the deaths, and what Korean Americans perceive as official foot-dragging, have energized this normally low-profile, dispersed community, nudging residents into the political arena and generating extensive coverage in the local Korean-language media. "I think this is a wake-up call for Korean Americans to realize we are [still] immigrants in this country," said Hun Kim, a tall, second-generation Korean American in his late twenties. Kim, no relation to the deceased, is executive director of the Korean Community Center of the East Bay and a leading member of the Bay Area Korean American Justice Coalition, a group formed in direct response to the shootings. "We need to reevaluate what our priorities are for creating a political identity for ourselves and how we want to interact with the cities and policymakers," he says.

The coalition has written to Mayor Janet Lockhart and Police Chief Gary Thuman demanding that the officers involved -- David Taylor, 39, and Tara Russell, 26 -- be taken from active duty. It also wants Dublin to diversify its force -- which Lieutenant Moon concedes has no Asian-American officers -- create a civilian police review board, train officers in language and culture sensitivity, and provide extra training in how to defuse tense situations. The coalition's first candlelight vigil back in September drew about 150 people. It also has held a town hall meeting to discuss the shootings.

Pleasanton resident Joyce Chung, who attended last week's vigil, said she was never before politically active, but the deaths of Richard Kim and his brother have changed that. "I don't think this is just Korean-American issue," she said. "This is whole Asian community, American community also."

The last time local Korean Americans united like this over a single issue may have been in the late 1970s, when they rallied behind convicted killer and San Quentin death row inmate Chol Soo Lee, who was later retried and acquitted. Local Koreans were historically concentrated in urban centers like Oakland or San Francisco. But as they've risen up the economic ladder, families have sought better schools and safer neighborhoods in the suburbs, Hun Kim and others say. "For a lot of Koreans, once you've made it out to the suburbs, the process of assimilation dictates this social understanding of how things are supposed to be," Kim explains. "That this incident happened is kind of shedding light on the fact that maybe this transition is not necessarily so easy."

The police department won't address specifics of the case, but Lieutenant Moon allows that he doesn't think the shootings had to do with race, or that there was any tension between Dublin's white residents and immigrant groups. Yet the incident, which many Korean Americans view as the result of cultural misunderstandings, is not without precedent in the greater Bay Area.

In a widely publicized incident three years ago, San Jose police killed a Vietnamese woman who was holding a vegetable peeler -- the officers say they mistook it for a cleaver. San Jose cops also shot a Hispanic resident in 2004 after officers mistook him for a suspect. In 1997 Rohnert Park police shot a Taiwanese immigrant on his lawn because they thought the man, who was holding a stick, was a martial arts expert and was threatening them. "I think we're going to see more and more of these incidences in the suburbs because you have more minorities moving into the suburbs," says Jonathan Bae, a Dublin resident and cocounsel for Jeeyoung Kim. "If the police aren't trained in cultural sensitivity and language barrier issues, I can imagine this type of thing can happen."

Mayor Lockhart and the sheriff's office have repeatedly stated that they won't meet with the Korean-American coalition until the "appropriate time." Coalition member Sang-hyuk Shin translates that as the time when officials think the public has lost interest. Shin believes this sort of nonresponse will simply "inflame" the community. "It's not something that's going to go away," he promises.


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