Nou Kai Lee and Youa Vang Lee, the parents of Fong Lee, at vigil following his death. (Photo from Hmong Today)
While the Pioneer Press has reported extensively on the affidavits and depositions filed by the Fong Lee family in the lawsuit over the Minneapolis police shooting of Fong Lee in 2006, the Star Tribuneseems to have an inside track with the Minneapolis police department.
Minneapolis Police Chief Tim Dolan decided to give the Star Tribune an exclusive interview about the Fong Lee case on Monday, rather than hold an open press conference, according to police spokesperson Jesse Garcia. From that interview, the Star Tribune reported that Dolan said that members of the now-disbanded Police Community Relations Council (PCRC) lied about hearing him say that the police found fingerprints on the gun found near Fong Lee’s body. David Hanners, the Pioneer Press reporter who has been covering the Fong Lee story, said he has requested an interview with Chief Dolan “almost daily,” but so far has not been given an interview.
The PCRC was formed five years ago as a result of a federal mandate, Garcia said. The mandate ordered the council to exist for five years, in order to build communication between the police department and the community. Despite a vote by the community members to continue their work, the council dissolved in December. The former community members of PCRC now call themselves the Unity and Community Team, according to Al Flowers, a member of the group, and still continue meetings without the police department.
Members of the group allege that Chief Dolan told them in 2006 that Fong Lee’s fingerprints were found on the gun by his body. Given that Dolan now says that there were no fingerprints found on the gun, PCRC members Al Flowers, Zach Metoyer, Ron Edwards and Spike Moss all say that Dolan lied.
In response to Dolan’s statement that the PCRC members were lying, Metoyer said no one has ever accused him of lying in his life. “They may not like what I said, but they never said I lied about anything.”
“The chief is saying that we are liars,” said PCRC member Ron Edwards. “That’s pretty much how the police department has dealt with the community in the past.” Edwards said that the facts speak for themselves. “I think the chief is digging a very deep hole for himself.”
“His lying is consistent,” said Spike Moss, another PCRC member. Moss said that the community is tired of police throwing guns down and “quietly giving the families money.”
The PCRC members claim that Dolan said numerous times in 2006 that Lee’s fingerprints were on the gun found near his body. Metoyer, Edwards and Moss said they heard Dolan say there were fingerprints on the gun at a PCRC meeting following the shooting.
In the October 2006 PCRC minutes relating to the Fong Lee case, which can be found online, there is no mention of fingerprints. Edwards said that anything that is considered a “critical incident” does not get recorded in the meeting minutes. “It would have to be offline,” Edwards said.
Edwards and Flowers contend that Minneapolis city council member Ralph Remington also heard Dolan say that there were fingerprints on the gun. Remington declined to comment on the Fong Lee case, saying only that “The city’s trying to rigorously defend MPD’s position… Everybody’s pretty hush hush about it.”
The police department now contends that no fingerprints were found on the gun, despite reports from Trooper Craig Benz and Officer Jason Andersen that Lee held the gun in his hand. In a statement following the death of Fong Lee, Andersen said Lee twice raised the gun in his direction. Anderson also said in that statement that he saw the gun in Lee’s right hand. Anderson said the gun was found approximately two feet from Lee’s body. Other officers on the scene reported that the gun was located “several feet away” from Fong Lee’s hand (Officer Brian Buck) or “approximately three feet away from the left hand” (Officer Bruce Johnson).
Spokesman Garcia said that just because no fingerprints were found on the gun, that doesn’t mean that Lee didn’t have it in his hand. “Fingerprints are best preserved when they are perfectly placed on the object,” Garcia said.
Michael Browne, who was the Civil Rights Director for Minneapolis at the time of the shooting, said “My initial reaction was that it’s not too surprising that with the allegations they are making that it would end up in court. It’s almost the most appropriate venue to do it. You have all the procedural mechanisms in place, to flesh out whether the assertions were true.” Browne said he couldn’t speak of his involvement with the case as civil rights director, but said “It would be helpful to know what the outcome is. It will have an impact on people’s trust of police.”
Sheila Regan is a theater artist based in Minneapolis. When not performing or writing, she serves as educational coordinator for Teatro del Pueblo.