Friday, February 22, 2008

Korean American Artist Gunned Down in O.C.

Originally published by The Los Angeles Times, by H.G. Reza, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer February 11, 2008

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.

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 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. Cho's family has hired attorney Mark Geragos' firm to represent them in a possible lawsuit against police.

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, striking Cho 10 times.

Cho's mother 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.

Michael Cho expressed himself through music, sculpture, drawing and ceramics, which became his passion. In 2005, after graduating from UCLA, Cho went to South Korea to study traditional Korean ceramic art, his mother said. He was also active in his church, where he taught art to disabled children. Cho planned to apply to Yale University's master's program in art and become a college professor. His friends have started a group on the social networking website Facebook that has more than 2,600 members. The site, "stop police brutality -- remember Michael Cho," was launched "to celebrate his wonderful life" and protest his death. "A beautiful young man has lost his life and we can not allow him to become just another person that has been lost to gun violence," the site says.

This story makes me genuinely sad. Maybe it's because Michael was an artist and a fellow Korean American. Maybe it touches home because La Habra, CA is my old hood. Living in Cali, I witnessed a police standoff with guns drawn when a man took a woman hostage outside one of my favorite restaurants. I see how the situation could have quickly turned into something bloody. If Michael Cho were smashing cars and threatening officers with a tire iron, why didn't they take out his kneecaps or shoot him in stomach? Could it be that the officers thought they were witnessing another wacked out Virginia Tech killer? See the surveillance video of Michael Cho's fateful encounter with the La Habra police here.