HomeVietnamese AmericanThe vegetable peeler - Police shooting of Bich Cau Thi Tran

The vegetable peeler – Police shooting of Bich Cau Thi Tran

By Raymond Douglas Chong, AsAmNews Staff Writer

On a warm summer day in San Jose, a distraught woman yelled in Vietnamese. She wildly waved a vegetable peeler at the locked bedroom door. San Jose Police officers responded to an emergency call. Within one minute, a police officer shot Tran at her chest and instantly killed her, in front of her boyfriend and their two sons.

Background

Born in Vietnam in 1978, Bich Cau Tran immigrated to America in 1997. She had worked at NUMMI, an automobile manufacturing company in Fremont. She and Dang Quang Bui, her boyfriend, lived together, with their two sons, Tony, 4. and Tommy, 2, at a duplex on East Taylor Street in San Jose, in a poor neighborhood. At just 4′ 9″ tall, Tran weighed 98 pounds. She spoke little English.

Tran had a serious mental illness. She used psychiatric drugs.  The Fremont and San Jose Police Departments have responded in the past to several calls involving Tran.

Shooting

On Sunday evening, July 13, 2003, Tran accidentally locked herself out of her bedroom. Tran wandered madly through the neighborhood. She had neglected her toddler son. Bui took Tran and their son back to their apartment. She attempted to open her bedroom door using a Vietnamese vegetable peeler called a “dao bao.” While Tran screamed in Vietnamese, Officer Chad Marshall, a White American, and Officer Tom Mun, a Korean American, arrived in separate patrol cars, in response to a domestic violence report.

Bui opened the front door for the two officers. Within one minute, Officer Marshall discerned Tran as a threat with a deadly weapon.She waved the dao bao, in the kitchen. He shot Tran through her heart. 

San Jose Police Department

Aftermath

The San Jose police department issued a press release that stated a justification for Officer Marshall to shoot Tran. She waved a deadly cleaver.

A cleaver is what I had call it. It is not a peeler.

Chief Bill Lansdowne  ON THE DEFENSIVE: KITCHEN IMPLEMENT AT CENTER OF DISPUTE BETWEEN OFFICERS, WOMAN’S FAMILY, San Jose Mercury News, July 16, 2003

Many Vietnamese Americans in San Jose reacted with shock and outrage. Critics accused Officer Marshall of using excessive force. They protested at San Jose City Hall. They held a vigil for Tran.

The tragedy has definitely brought the Vietnamese community together. With the rally that I helped organize, it only took less than 24 hours to get more than two hundred people to show up at City Hall.

Madison Nguyen, Little Saigon Flexes New Political Muscles in Rare Unity
Pacific News Service, August 1, 2003

Dan Nishigaya, Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney convened a Santa Clara County criminal grand jury about the case. They met to decide whether to indict Officer Marshall on criminal charges or manslaughter or murder.  Bui clearly disputed the Police Department’s account of the incident, but they agreed that Tran had a mental health issue.

Officer Mun testified that Officer Marshall warned Tran to drop the knife. She had menacingly raised the knife over her head while screaming. As she moved to throw the knife, Officer Marshall fired.   

Bui claimed that Tran had tried to open the locked bedroom door with a dao bao as she screamed and cried. When the police officers arrived, an agitated Tran waved the dao bao at the locked bedroom door. Bui contended that Officer Marshall fired immediately when he entered the apartment from the living room. Joy Tamez, a passerby who initially summoned police after finding Tran’s unattended toddler wandering in a busy street, confirmed Bui’s account.

Dr. Richard Mason, head pathologist for the Santa Cruz County coroner, testified that Officer Marshall fired at the chest of Tran. His shot pierced her heart and a major artery. Tran died instantly. A police trainer said that a sharpened weapon is more dangerous than a gun. Police officers are trained to use deadly force again a deadly weapon.

On October 30, 2003, the criminal grand jury declined to indict Officer Marshall on charges of either manslaughter or murder in Tran’s death.

Courtesy: Richard Kondo

Richard Konda, a director of the Asian Law Alliance, founded the Coalition for Justice and Accountability (CJA), to seek justice in the Tran case. CJA demanded the San Jose Police Department to be culturally sensitive and adopt nonlethal tactics for subduing mentally disturbed people. CJA had several protests at the San Jose City Hall in November 2003, after the criminal grand jury decision. CJA did not pursue further investigation by the California Attorney General or United States Department of Justice.   

On November 12, 2003, the Estate of Cau Bich Tran filed a civil lawsuit against the City of San Jose, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California. On November 30, 2005, Tran’s family settled for $1.82 million with the City of San Jose, to avoid more publicity of the incident.

Following the incident, there was a lot of distrust of the San Jose Police Department, in particular by the Vietnamese community, The question came up: How could a young mother, less than 5 feet tall, really be a credible threat? How could it end that way? I would hope because of this incident that when officers go out to the scene, they are looking at less lethal ways to de-escalate situations.

Richard Konda SAN JOSE / $1.8 million settlement in killing by police officer / 4-foot-9-inch troubled mother fatally shot in kitchen while holding a vegetable peeler, Chronicle Dec. 1, 2005
Courtesy: Aram James

Retrospection

In a poignant retrospection, after 18 years, Aram James, retired Santa Clara County deputy public defender, and Richard Konda, executive director of the Asian Law Alliance and chair of CJA, spoke to AsAmNews.

During the grand jury proceeding my recollection is that there was a tremendous effort by the prosecution to demonize Bic Cau Thi Tran, more so than to vigorously pursue the prosecution of Officer Chad Marshall, the shooter.

It seemed to me that the evidence clearly established an intentional homicide with no effort to deescalate.

Rather than focus on questions about the homicide, and the quick shooting and killing of the victim, within a very short period of the police entering Tran’s apartment, the officers’ training, or the lack thereof, or of any efforts to deescalate the situation, or to avoid the shooting altogether, the prosecution chose to focus on blaming the victim, her history of mental health issues and prior police contacts.

Aram James

It was very unusual this circumstance (killing), and I think part of the reason that they opened grand jury process. There was so much public concern and outrage.   

People were really shocked and outraged They could not understand that a Vietnamese vegetable peeler be consider a deadly weapon.

I think that the story when he (Officer Marshall) felt his life in danger, I find it hard to believe. Then the testimony at the grand jury, that the vegetable peeler is a deadly weapon.

Richard Konda

Legacy

In March 2004,  San Jose Department distributed 50,000-volt Taser stun guns to its patrol officers, in lieu of a firearm.

On August 11, 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed a California law that banned grand juries from indicting police officers facing charges for lethal shootings. The presiding district attorney must decide to present criminal charges.

The San Jose Police Department now has an Asian Community Liaison. Vietnamese Americans are gradually joining the ranks of police officers.

CJA continues to advocate for humane policing practices and against police misconduct. They still want to ban the use of Taser stun guns by police officers. Konda and James call for “Every district attorney in this country must develop a robust police crimes team. This team must be fully independent of law enforcement and be given the sole ability to prosecute without political pressure from police unions or elected officials.”

San Jose, the largest Vietnamese American community, is actively participating in civic engagement. Voters elected Madison Nguyen in 2011, making her the first Vietnamese council member ever in the city. Tam Nguyen, Manh Nguyen, and Lan Diep subsequently served.

Meanwhile Tran’s family remains in San Jose and struggles to survive without her.

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