La Habra officers are cleared in shooting

Times Staff Writer

Two La Habra police officers who shot a man 11 times acted legally when they killed him on New Year’s Eve because the victim threatened one of them with a tire iron, Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said Thursday.

“This appears to be a justifiable homicide,” Rackauckas said at a meeting with leaders of Southern California’s Korean American community. A spokeswoman said it was only the third time the district attorney had sat down with a community group to discuss an investigation of a police shooting.

Michael Cho, 25, was agitated and reacted in a bizarre manner when the officers, with guns drawn, ordered him to drop the weapon, Senior Assistant Dist. Atty. Jim Tanizaki said. Tanizaki, who helped supervise the investigation, said police had responded to calls that Cho was vandalizing cars.

Instead of complying with the officers’ orders, he walked away, Tanizaki said. When an officer got in front of him, he said, Cho raised the tire iron as if to hit him.

Both officers fired because they thought Cho, an artist and UCLA graduate, “could and would hurt people,” Tanizaki said.


After the nearly two-hour meeting, Richard Choi Bertsch, a spokesman for the Korean American community, said he would ask the U.S. Justice Department to open a civil rights investigation. “This case really knocks sensibility out of my head,” said Bertsch, of the Orange County Korean American Coalition “It almost sounds like this presentation was ‘why we could not charge [the officers].’ ”

After the meeting, others accused the police of using excessive force and asked how a vandalism call could result in someone’s being shot almost a dozen times when, according to prosecutors, the officers also had batons and pepper spray.

“The courts give some deference to police officers who have to make split-second decisions,” Tanizaki said.

Though the investigation cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing, Rackauckas said, it was not an endorsement of their actions.

The district attorney and the La Habra Police Department declined to release the names of the officers involved. Although the department issued a brief statement offering condolences to Cho’s family, Chief Dennis Kies did not respond to a request for comment on why the names were being withheld.

Information supplied by the district attorney showed that Cho was troubled in the months before his death. He struggled with mental illness, and he threatened his parents with a kitchen knife in April 2007. Two months later his mother called police on successive days to report that he had walked away from a mental institution and was smashing items in the house.

She said that he was being violent and that he wanted officers to shoot him in the head “so he can die.” His mother said that the family wanted him back “in rehab” but that officers left each time without taking him into custody.

About a month before his death, Cho was arrested in Los Angeles County on suspicion of misdemeanor sexual battery. And on the day he died, Tanizaki said, he was very upset and left a Bellflower hospital to which his parents had tried to have him committed.