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Riverside Police Chief justifies shooting of Vanpaseuth Phaisouphanh

by Mary Shelton Saturday, Jun. 16, 2001 at 1:44 AM

Accompanied by a police guard, Riverside Police Chief Russ Leach defended the shooting of a Laotian-American last weekend, but won few converts, as more than 50 people appeared at the Commission meeting, to ask one major question: Why did the police department resort to lethal force to kill a person of color, while allowing a white man in a similar situation to live?

Riverside Police Chief Russ Leach, accompanied by a police guard, appeared before the Community Police Review Commission to defend the actions of police officer Edgar Porche, when he shot and killed Vanpaseuth Phaisouphanh, 25 who allegedly charged him with two steak knives. And the commission fumbled the ball, by voting to allow the department's internal affairs division to conduct an expediated investigation, rather than conduct its own independent investigation

Leach said that even though it would take months to complete the administrative and criminal investigations involving the shooting, he had determined that the facts so far, were 'irrefutable' that the shooting was justified. 'Edgar Porche acted in defense of his life,' he said.

The Commission took public comment from over a dozen speakers who condemned the shooting as involving excessive force. Serena Chang said she had never understood why young people she knew, despised the police. The shooting changed her perspective, she said. 'I don't know what to do if I see an officer going down the street. Should I drop down on my knees and pray they don't kill me,' she said. Leach, accompanied by Captain Richard Dana and a smiling Lt. Jeffrey Collapy, head of Internal Affairs, lowered his head, while listening to members of the public walk up one by one to address the Commission.

Some asked why Phaisouphanh was killed in several minutes by Porche, and a white man, armed with two knives who slashed a security guard, and threatened officers at a mall, was allowed to be shot only with beanbags after a 35 minute standoff with police.

Leach had announced that instead of immediately going into closed session to discuss the shooting, he would address the audience first, and people applauded. Then he walked up to the podium accompanied by officer Erich Feimer, who faced the audience. People gasped, and asked what Leach had to fear from people sitting in their seats simply waiting for answers. Another example of the police's misunderstanding and mistrust of people of color, another said.

Leach presented a more detailed explanation of events around the shooting. Two 911 calls had reached the Communications Center. One from someone who screamed and then drooped the phone leaving the line open, for the duration of the incident. Another came from a man, who said that a neighbor and his family had been attacked by a man welding two knives. Porche arrived at the scene and saw Phaisouphanh crouched by his garage. Porche left his vehicle and Phaisouphanh walked towards him in a 'deliberate and agressive manner,' he said. Porche ordered the man to drop the knives, and backed all away around the front of his squad car, as Phaisouphanh approached him. He again warned the man to drop the knives, and said at that point, Phaisouphanh extended his arms forward and charged. Porche fired five times hitting the man in the chest, stomach, groin and one of his eyes. Emergancy personnel already at the scene assisted. Another officer arrived and kicked the knives out of Phaisouphanh's hands. He was taken to the hospital where he died at 12:48 p.m.

People listened to the account, murmuring in disbelief, and audibly gasping as Leach dispassionately described the bullet wounds. Someone yelled, 'why was this shooting justified?'

The commission went into closed session with the police, possibly in violation of state law, and 40 people waited for an official statement. Family members talked about how Phaisouphanh's mother had rushed to the hospital to see her son, while he could still hear her, and even after begging with an officer to see his body, was told that she could not, by the officer who smiled and told her to have a good day. Others asked why a 54 year old man was able to escape from Phaisouphan, but an officer over six feet tall, fully trained could not restrain him without resorting to lethal force.

Upon leaving closed session, Commission Chair announced that the Commission would defer to the department's Internal Affairs Division but said there would be a meeting later on to discuss the investigation. The police representatives left the chambers, single-filed and in silence, while community members lingered.

Deborah Wong, a professor and head of Center for Asian-Pacific America spoke of how the tragic shooting had mobilized the Laotian-American community. "I think this awoke a sleeping giant," she said. "They've created a lot of activists from one of the quietest communities."

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