When news broke of a 27-year-old Vietnamese man being shot and killed at his home by a San Jose police officer, the pain of the tragedy in the local community was amplified by a gut-wrenching and unexpected feeling—familiarity.
While questions are still being asked after the May 10 shooting of Daniel Pham, the basic fact pattern that has been disclosed by the San Jose Police Department 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 had reportedly cut his brother with a knife. Within three minutes after police arrived and had found Pham in the backyard with a knife, he was dead. According to reports in the Mercury News, Pham’s siblings at the time of the incident were yelling at officers not to kill him, and that he was mentally ill.
The impulse by Pham’s family to yell a warning not to kill their brother was informed by the Cau Bich Tran, case which was a defining moment in police and community relations in San Jose, and six years later still looms over the city, not only due to the loss of life, but because of the outrage it sparked in the Vietnamese community. Cua Bich Tran, 25-years-old, was also shot and killed in her home when officers arrived at her house responding to a domestic disturbance call and mistakenly taking her vegetable peeler for a cleaver.
While the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office has called for a Grand Jury, and an internal police investigation begins to examine the shooting of Daniel Pham, the recent death is an indicator of how regressive the City of San Jose has become regarding critical incidents involving police officers since the time of Cau Bich Tran’s passing. What has been revealed through Daniel Pham’s death is how little the City has learned, and how authentic community concern can lead to misdirected political policies.
In response to the Cau Bich Tran shooting, two policy changes were created. These were the assignment of the Independent Police Auditor to audit officer involved shooting deaths, and the introduction of a new weapon —Tasers.
Yet six years later, as the City responds to the Pham death and draws upon its solutions implemented from the Tran case, both policies have proven to insufficient. The policy to have the Independent Police Auditor review officer involved shootings no longer exists, and the Taser, while allegedly used on Daniel Pham, was not used as a replacement of a gun, but rather as a precursor to one.
The IPA power to audit shooting deaths was rescinded by a controversial opinion offered by the 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 included other officer involved critical incidents such as Taser involved deaths.
San Jose was the first large city in the country to arm each of their officers with the weapon in 2004, which came directly as a response to the Tran case. Since implementation though, there have been seven Taser-involved deaths of civilians. But rather than expand the audit beyond shootings to all critical incidents, the City Council, informed by the interpretation of the City Charter by the City Attorney, claimed that the Independent Police Auditor actually could not audit any officer involved incident—including officer involved shootings like Tran of the past, and Pham in the present.
The re-interpretation of history, and the diminished role of the office means that Daniel Pham’s death will have less scrutiny and review than Cau Bich Tran’s did.
When Cau Bich Tran died, the city of San Jose did what if felt was the right thing, to prevent the possibilities of another tragic death. Who knows if those efforts, if fully realized, and better informed, could have prevented the death of Daniel Pham. 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.