Never underestimate the influence Southern California police agencies have over submissive newsmedia organizations.
Take the Little Saigon case of Andy Tran, a 32-year-old, Vietnamese-American immigrant who died tragically during an encounter with cops just before lunch on Sept. 3, 2008. Garden Grove Police Department (GGPD) officials swiftly provided The Orange County Register with their official story, and the newspaper dutifully regurgitated the information to the public: Tran, a violent individual with a drug arrest, had been caught breaking into a residence. The suspect refused to comply with commands and prepared to assault them, so in fear for their safety, the officers fired a 50,000-volt Taser dart into his thigh, the police claimed. Tran later died of unknown causes at a hospital. Though the GGPD had barely started its internal-affairs investigation, the department consulted its trusty crystal ball and vouched in the press release for the officers' conduct as justified.
At a glance, the police summary is, as it was intended, convincing that Tran was the bad guy—a violent drug user, burglar and troublemaker—whose conduct caused the good-guy cops to employ substantial force in the normal course of their duties to protect public safety. Though a young man had been alive before police contact and was dead afterward, the story apparently sparked little curiosity inside the Register newsroom. After rewriting the GGPD press release titled “Casualty During Physical Confrontation With Police,” the paper turned its attention to the Miss Garden Grove Pageant, a parenting workshop at a public library and a debate over whether the city should permit residents to use artificial turf in their private yards.
However, according to a Weekly investigation based on internal law-enforcement documents, interviews and court records, the police version of events was textbook, self-serving propaganda. On the day of Tran's death, the department—which is legally obligated to serve the public with steadfast integrity—produced at least 13 lies, misrepresentations or crucial, factual omissions. That's quite a suspicious feat for a single-paragraph press release.
The fraudulent statement was only the beginning of a callous, six-figure cover-up campaign. For four years, Garden Grove officials have attempted to thwart legal efforts by the victim's bereaved family to force the police to admit the officers botched the incident and caused an unnecessary death. As their initial story crumbled with the emergence of unfavorable facts, government officials tried to smear Tran's reputation by claiming he'd been highly intoxicated on booze during the incident, but that went nowhere because toxicology reports performed during the autopsy found no trace of alcohol. Then, they threw the courthouse equivalent of the kitchen sink, arguing that California cops who kill on duty deserve the professional courtesy of immunity from any civilian—including judges and jurors—later holding them accountable if they negligently take an innocent life.
Despite the police version, Tran wasn't a hardened criminal, but rather a loving husband and, due to a disability, a stay-at-home dad for his bubbly 3-year-old son. As with the Kelly Thomas case, the GGPD also knew he suffered from an onset of adult schizophrenia because they'd been called to take him to the hospital for medical aid on five occasions prior to the fatal incident. Tran, who'd emigrated from Saigon to the United States with his family at age 13, had never carried weapons or been violent, though he'd been arrested for minor drug possession 12 years earlier, a charge later dismissed. The police and Register inference that he had been attempting to burglarize a residence proves especially despicable when you learn he'd taken the screen off a window of his own home.
On the day of the killing, Tran's elderly parents did what they'd done before—they called 911, expecting help. Their son had been in the front yard struggling with a bout of schizophrenia. He wasn't armed, and he wasn't threatening anyone. According to three eyewitnesses, he was disoriented, mumbling and crying.
When officer Daniel Karschamroon arrived at the scene, he saw Tran at the window and issued a series of commands. Tran seemed to snap back to reality and didn't hesitate to obey each order, according to all accounts. As Karschamroon began to finish handcuffing Tran and take him as a code “5150” mental patient to the hospital, eyewitness Mark Zimmerman, a neighbor standing about 30 feet away, saw no hint of resistance. But a second cop arrived. Karschamroon did not tell his colleague that Tran was resisting arrest or preparing to assault them, but officer Richard Gendreau nonetheless took out his Taser gun. With Tran standing still with his hands on his head, Gendreau fired a high-voltage dart into his thigh.
“Andy was doing everything the police officer told him to do,” recalled Zimmerman. “He was never violent, and then the 'cowboy cop' just shoots him with the Taser.”
The scene was chilling.
“That was it,” said Zimmerman. “Andy's knees hit the ground, and then his face [did]. It was lights out for him. He didn't ever move again. He was dead. It was like dropping a sack of potatoes from a second-story window.”
During a deposition in the civil case against the cops, Zimmerman's potato-sack imagery amused Gendreau and Karschomroon. “I saw them laugh,” he said. “In my view, that guy's death was nothing to laugh about.”
Zimmerman said he's not the type of person who rails about police misconduct, but it disturbed him that the cops stood over a purple-faced Tran, accused him of faking his death, slapped him in the face, then placed him in handcuffs—a move that restricted breathing and, though they are trained in first aid, rendered no medical assistance. He believes it took the officers as long as two minutes before they summoned paramedics. Concluded Zimmerman, “These [cops] were just screwing around. That could have been one of my kids.”
After reviewing evidence brought by the police as well as Sean Hennessey, the Tran family's hard-charging, Westminster-based attorney and former Orange County public defender, U.S. District Court Judge David O. Carter noted contradictions in Gendreau's use-of-force explanations, relied on the coroner's report to reject the GGPD's claim that the Taser blast didn't immediately kill Tran and observed that the officer knew Tasers could be fatal.
“Ample facts exist that would allow a reasonable jury to conclude that Andy did not pose a threat to anyone's safety,” Carter wrote in his opinion rejecting Gendreau's demand for immunity. “A reasonable jury undoubtedly could conclude that the intrusion onto Andy's constitutional rights was significant.”
Facing Zimmerman's credible testimony, Carter's unsympathetic rulings and an unambiguous record of its own prevarications, GGPD settled the federal civil-rights complaint in late April before a jury could consider the killing. The police still don't want the public to know all the facts. GGPD insisted the terms of the settlement remain secret.
The Register still has not updated its original, erroneous story.
This column appeared in print as “The Execution of Andy Tran: Garden Grove police used a Taser to kill a mentally disabled Vietnamese man who was complying with their commands.”
R. Scott Moxley has won Journalist of the Year honors at the Los Angeles Press Club; been named Distinguished Journalist of the Year by the LA Society of Professional Journalists; and hailed by two New York Times Magazine writers for his “herculean job” exposing Southern California law enforcement corruption.