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Korean Americans angered by killing

La Habra police were too quick to shoot in New Year's Eve incident, critics say.

February 11, 2008|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

On New Year's Eve, La Habra police shot and killed Michael Cho in a strip mall parking lot when he allegedly threatened officers with a tire iron.

The killing of the UCLA graduate and artist has set off criticism of police not heard in Southern California's Korean American community since the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when shop owners complained that officers never showed up to stop looters, and they picked up guns to defend their stores.

This time, community leaders say La Habra police were too quick on the trigger when responding to a vandalism call.

"We haven't seen this expression of shock, disbelief and sadness in the community before," said Richard Choi Bertsch, of the Orange County Korean American Coalition. "All of the first-generation parents are saying, 'This could've been my kid.' " Charles Kim, a La Habra resident and past national president of the Korean American Coalition, said that "the community's mind is pretty much set that the police overreacted."

The shooting has been widely followed in the Korean-language media. Korea Times reporter John Lee called it "one of the biggest stories" and said every new development is reported "as soon as it comes in."

Three weeks after Cho's death, the Korean Community Lawyers' Assn. sponsored a meeting in Los Angeles' Koreatown, where lawyers and a former police official discussed the use of deadly force. One topic on the agenda was "Defining Police Use of Force: How to Prevent Another Korean From Being Shot." The Justice for Michael Cho committee has organized vigils at the shooting site and in front of the La Habra police station and will take a delegation to the next City Council meeting Feb. 19.

Sensing the concern, police Chief Dennis Kies asked the Orange County Human Relations Commission to arrange a meeting with community leaders in Garden Grove on Jan. 4. Executive Director Rusty Kennedy said the meeting, attended by about 30 people, was "contentious but orderly."

"There was some anger. People posed challenging questions and wanted to know why police didn't use nonlethal force," Kennedy said. "They wanted to know why the young man was shot so many times, and how would [Kies] feel if it had been his son."

The Orange County district attorney's office is investigating the shooting, but few community leaders expect the two officers involved to be punished for the 25-year-old artist's death. Authorities refused to identify the officers.

District attorney's spokeswoman Susan Kang Schroeder said the last time an Orange County police officer was prosecuted for shooting someone while on duty was in the 1980s.

Cho's family has hired attorney Mark Geragos' firm to represent them in a possible lawsuit against police. Geragos has represented several high-profile clients, including Michael Jackson, Scott Peterson, who was convicted of killing his wife, and Brent R. Wilkes, convicted of bribing former Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R-Rancho Santa Fe).

In addition, the Korean Community Lawyers' Assn. has assigned an attorney and hired an investigator to conduct a separate probe.

The Cho family said a lawsuit may lead to answers that authorities have not provided.

Information released by police after the Dec. 31 shooting said officers responded about 1 p.m. to a call about an Asian man vandalizing cars in the 900 block of North Walnut Avenue.

They were unable to find the vandal. An hour later, another call said he was at Walnut Street and Whittier Avenue, carrying a tire iron.

The caller identified a man who turned out to be Cho, who was standing outside a liquor store. A store surveillance tape first obtained by the Korea Times and posted on the Internet shows Cho walking toward two officers, who have guns drawn, a sequence that lasts about 25 seconds.

Cho brings his right hand to his mouth and appears to hold something in his left hand, which hangs by his side.

With both officers still pointing their guns at him, he makes a right turn and walks out of camera range.

Police said in a news release that Cho was "agitated" and ignored orders to drop the tire iron.

Instead, police say, Cho walked toward one of the officers and "raised the tire iron above his head" as if to strike. Both officers fired numerous shots.

Pat Harris, the family's attorney, said Cho was shot at least 10 times.

Honglan Cho said the surveillance tape shows that her son was "very calm and relaxed" and not a threat to police.

She said he regularly walked to the strip mall to buy cigarettes or eat at a nearby fast-food restaurant.

Three hours after the shooting, police went to Cho's parents' home, saying they had received a vandalism report and inquired about their son, said Sung Man Cho, a painting contractor.

They did not tell him that Michael Cho was dead, he said.

Police returned at 8 p.m. They said Cho was dead but did not say how he died, the father said.

The family was unclear about when they learned how he was killed.

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