Police Killing Divides San Jose

Times Staff Writers

Rocked by accusations that a San Jose police officer used excessive force when he fatally shot a Vietnamese immigrant last week, police have taken their case to Vietnamese-language radio and newspapers to stem growing tensions in the city’s sprawling Asian community.

The public relations campaign, which began Sunday, expresses the department’s “condolences” to the family of Cau Tran, a 25-year-old mother of two who died July 13 from a single gunshot wound to the chest in the kitchen of her home. Tran allegedly threatened two officers with a vegetable peeler. Police Chief William Lansdowne has also publicly apologized.

The kitchen implement is one of several issues at the heart of a case that both sides say demonstrates long-standing cultural misunderstandings between the 1,400-officer department and a 100,000-member Vietnamese community that is the nation’s second-largest, after Little Saigon in Orange County.

“It’s not just about a Vietnamese woman with two children who got shot and killed,” said Tam Nguyen, an attorney and activist in San Jose. “It’s a civil issue about police [use of] force. The community at large has the momentum and wants to use this as an opportunity to raise our concerns.”

After last week’s emotional march to San Jose City Hall and police headquarters by more than 150 sympathizers, Vietnamese community members planned to meet with Lansdowne and the city’s Human Relations Committee tonight.


Community members contend that there are too few Vietnamese-speaking officers in San Jose and that the department has exaggerated the threat posed by the 90-pound Tran. Police at first also identified the implement wielded by the woman as a “cleaver,” angering many Vietnamese residents, who say the peeler, or dao bao, is a bladed device found in many homes.

After the shooting, police issued a news release, an action that also irked many. “It listed her name like it was a victory that they shot this terrible person,” Nguyen said.

The department decided to launch its public relations move after the Santa Clara County district attorney’s office pledged to take the unusual step of impaneling an open grand jury to look into the shooting.

An open grand jury has been used only one other time in recent county history, also in a police shooting, said a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office.

Despite police apologies, Kim Manh Tran, the woman’s father, said it was little consolation.

“No matter how much they apologize, she’s dead,” the father said. “We’ve lost a daughter and we’re very, very sad. It’s been a lot of sleepless nights.”

The shooting also reverberated in Orange County, which, combined with San Jose, establishes California as the nation’s capital of Vietnamese American media and entertainment.

Victim Was Petite

Many in San Jose’s Vietnamese community said Monday that they believed the police media blitz was a good start to mend relations. Others stressed that officers could have prevented the shooting.

“She’s 4 feet 10 inches, 90 pounds,” said Lan Hai Nguyen, chairwoman of the nonprofit group Vietnamese American Forum in San Jose. “With the peeler, it’s not going to hurt a person. That’s not right.”

Yet authorities continued to stand by Officer Chad Marshall, a four-year veteran. Police on Monday suggested that Tran, who immigrated to the Bay Area from Vietnam in 1997, had a history of mental problems and may not have been taking her anti-depression medication.

Police also said that Tran had “anger issues,” according to reports by a social service agency that had recently been called to the home.

“She was on medication for some mental or psychological problems,” said Sgt. Steve Dixon, a department spokesman. “There are indications that when on her medications she was OK, but when she wasn’t, she could be violent.”

The victim’s father said his daughter was “normal.” She did not have any illnesses, was not on medications and “would never hit anyone,” he said.

Added activist Lan Hai Nguyen: “Whether she’s mentally stable or not, it’s not for the police to shoot her.”

Officers were called to Tran’s home about 9 p.m. on a so-called “welfare check” after a neighbor reported that Tran’s toddler had been seen crossing a busy street after dark, according to the police report of the incident. The neighbor also called back to say that she heard screaming coming from the residence Tran shared with her boyfriend, Dang Bui, and the couple’s two young boys, ages 3 and 4.

Officers Marshall and Tom Mun were greeted at the door by Tran’s boyfriend, who said she was “acting crazy,” Dixon said. As the boyfriend ushered the two boys down a hallway, the officers encountered Tran in the kitchen.

“She began yelling at them in English to get out of house,” Dixon said. “They tried to calm her down, but she reached into a drawer and pulled out what the officers thought was a cleaver.”

When Tran reportedly raised the implement -- with a 6-inch blade and 4-inch handle -- Marshall opened fire from about 6 feet away, striking Tran once in the chest. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

“It was one of those instantaneous critical moments in which the officer made the decision to use deadly force,” San Jose Assistant Police Chief Thomas Wheatley said. “We’re reviewing it. The D.A. is reviewing it.”

Wheatley said the public should not underestimate the threat from the device. “When you tell an American audience that the woman was holding a potato peeler, most people have the image of that little thing you use to scrape a potato,” Wheatley said. “But this thing had a much, much larger blade.

“Was this a deadly weapon? We think it was. And the district attorney agrees with us.”

Arrived 6 Years Ago

Cau Tran and her brother, Bao, were sponsored by their father to immigrate to the United States six years ago.

Cau Tran lived with her father for about a year, until she met Bui when the two worked as electronic assemblers at a plant in Fremont. They moved into an apartment together. After she got laid off, the couple had their first child. The girl’s father said his daughter may have been two months pregnant.

The Vietnamese-language radio and newspaper spots are not the first form of outreach by police. For two years, the department has run a weekly radio show with Vietnamese-speaking officers explaining some of the cultural differences in dealing with police in the U.S., police say.

“We’ve also been counseling our own officers on those same cultural differences,” Wheatley said. “We tell them how the Vietnamese often smile when they’re nervous, a gesture that may give the appearance to some officers that they’re smirking. We’ve dealt with the tensions in training.”

Wheatley said the department will look to hire more Vietnamese officers, adding to the 28 staffers who already speak the language. The department also wants to boost its Vietnamese volunteer program and school patrol officers in rudimentary Vietnamese phrases.


Glionna reported from San Francisco, Tran from Orange County.