In what is by the San Jose Mercury News' calculations the largest payout in that city's history, a federal jury has awarded $11.3 million in damages to a man who was shot in the back by a San Jose police officer in 2014, an event that paralyzed him below the waist.
Civil rights lawyer John Burris of Oakland argued that his client, Hung Lam, a Vietnamese resident of San Jose, was — although holding a knife at the time he was shot — only threatening to injure himself, posing no danger to others. Officer Dondi West, who wears glasses but didn't have them on at the time, fired unnecessarily, Burris successfully argued.
The case may be appealed, but it has caused SJPD to review its practices, especially as it polices the city's large Vietnamese population who have expressed concern over the department's tactics.
"There is great fear in the Vietnamese community of police coming and using force," said president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP Jethroe Moore. "As a result, there is grave underreporting of domestic violence and gang brutality."
During a quarrel with his boyfriend, Lam "had not threatened anyone, and the caller reported to police only that Mr. Lam could hurt himself," according to the complaint in question writes the Chronicle. "There was no indication anyone other than Mr. Lam was in danger.”
Burris and his office also argued that, had officer West consulted witnesses in the surrounding area, she would have understood the situation and known not to fire her weapon. She failed to do so, lawyers alleged: "She saw a threat that no one else saw,” another of Lam's attorney's stated.
In a statement, Police Chief Larry Esquivel wrote that, "Officer Dondi West has been an officer with the San Jose Police Department for over 23 years and has had a stellar career with this department. She is an outstanding officer and will continue to work her regular assignment with this department as our City Attorney's Office researches the appeal process."
As Burris surmises the current atmosphere and conversation, "Certainly, the national spotlight has raised the knowledge level of everyone about police conduct, including jurors, which is helpful... Before, people sat with their arms folded." With regard to another case of what police call an "officer involved shooting," the attorney recently announced he would seek damages on behalf of Mario Woods with a civil rights lawsuit against the San Francisco Police Department, whose officers shot and killed him in the Bayview earlier this month.