Minneapolis Police Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

Minneapolis Police Shoot First, Ask Questions Later
Photo: *the get up kid*, Creative Commons, Flickr
On December 16, 2007, Minneapolis police – acting on an informant’s tip – raided three local homes searching for gang members, guns and drugs.

The targets were reportedly young black males, some of whom were being sought in connection with other crimes. Two of the raids were fruitful. One, at the home of Vang Khang (whose name clearly suggests he is not black), was a complete bust in all but the most literal sense.

Khang is one of 150,000 Hmong who have settled in Minnesota in the last 40 years, first as refugees from the Vietnam conflict and then to live near family members. Minnesota now has the largest Hmong population in the United States, and many are citizens.

"The first two addresses were very good, a lot of information, numerous guns were recovered," said Jesse Garcia, a Minneapolis police spokesperson.

The Khang family has never recovered. Khang, 35, thought the assault was a robbery and returned fire from behind a door until he realized the shooters were policemen. Fortunately, no one on either side was injured, though the officer’s body armor and helmets took a lot of punishment. As did Khang’s house, where 22 shots from high-caliber weapons left the structure looking like a war zone.

The city has since apologized for its error and paid Khang $7,500 to repair his house. The family opted to abandon it instead. The memories are too terrible. The Khangs have six children, only one of whom was home at the time of the raid. Khang’s wife, Yee Moua, says this son, nine years old, still has nightmares and needs therapy.

An internal investigation has since cleared the officers, and on Monday, July 28, three of them received medals of valor from Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan. The other five got medals of commendation. All are members of the police department’s SWAT team, and their Dec. 16 foray was approved by a municipal judge.

The Khang family – outraged by the awards – plans to file a lawsuit, according to their lawyer, former U.S. attorney Tom Heffelfinger. Dolan argues the awards are appropriate, since the officers were shot at. Moreover, insists Dolan, the department has never failed to recognize any officer fired on in the line of duty, and to do so now would be both a breach of departmental policy and a breach of trust. Minneapolis police spokesman Sgt. William Palmer adds that the officers in question "performed very bravely under gunfire and made smart decisions." Being shot at is enormously stressful, and those who have escaped the experience can’t really imagine the levels of adrenaline and fear.

Some argue that the Minneapolis police should have searched the tax roles first, which would have revealed Khang as the owner and eliminated him as a suspect by virtue of his Hmong name.

I agree with this argument. The Hmong are by and large a peaceful people but even they have their gangs, the Tiny Asian Crips and Cobras among them. Add to that a gradual and incidental breakdown in the Hmong family unit as a result of exposure to Western culture, and you have a significant demographic of alienated young people longing to belong. Gangs, and their leaders, feed on this need. Throw in this community’s lingering ties to a homeland, with all the chaos that can generate, and intermittent violence in the Hmong community becomes understandable.

Immigrants are, by their nature, isolated and therefore protective of their own, sometimes so much so that their behavior is equally as “racist” as any white American. I don’t blame the Hmong, but I’m not willing to exonerate them out of hand either.

Khang is clearly not a gang member, but the fact that he is Hmong does not automatically rule him out and the Minneapolis police would have concluded this. I am no fan of the MPD, whose tactics sometimes border on fascism, but if anyone is at fault here it is the informant who provided the information and, to a lesser extent, the officer who took it on faith.

The Khangs should have been justly compensated for their loss; both the physical loss of their home and the greater loss of a sense of security. The informant should be let go; this kind of carelessness is unacceptable, particularly when it leads to "shoot to kill" scenarios. The officer responsible for collecting the information should take a temporary pay cut or suspension to remind him (or her) of the need for accuracy when respondents carry lethal weapons.

Unfortunately, none of these measures will prevent a future incident. Mistakes happen, and an armed police force will inevitably overstep its mandate to protect by endangering the innocent. Even gun control won’t solve the problem, because criminals always know where to get guns and the police will never be able to sort the criminals from the innocent merely by name, or by sight.

If you have a solution, respond to this post with your comments. I would love to know how we can prevent future Khang terrorism.

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