Map Kong died in the parking lot of a Burnsville McDonald’s in March, shot 15 times by police officers who feared the mentally ill man could hurt someone with the knife he held.
In June, a grand jury declined to indict the officers.
Now, Kong’s family has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city of Burnsville and the officers. The shooting was excessive and unconstitutional because Kong didn’t pose a substantial threat, the family argues. The suit asserts that officers Taylor Jacobs, John Mott and Maksim Yakovlev were negligent and deliberately indifferent to Kong’s medical needs as he thrashed about in his car in psychological distress. And it alleges that the city was negligent and deliberately indifferent in failing to properly train officers to respond to a mental health crisis.
Bodycam video recorded officers discussing the standoff: “We can bust the window and tase him if you want,” one said. “If he gets out, I’ll go lethal.”
Kong’s family members — his two sons, parents and nine siblings — are seeking more than $2 million in compensatory and punitive damages.
Burnsville City Attorney Elliott Knetsch said the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust will appoint a lawyer to represent the city in the matter.
Police Chief Eric Gieseke did not return a call for comment. After the grand jury in June decided not to indict, Gieseke issued a statement saying the officers feared for the safety of people nearby and acted out of necessity. They worked to de-escalate the situation before running out of options, he said.
Lawyers for Kong’s family also took aim at the Dakota County grand jury process. In a news release, they said the family accepts the decision not to indict but that there is a conflict of interest in having Dakota County prosecutors control a secret grand jury process when the officers in question are frequently prosecution witnesses in that county’s criminal cases.
“Given this, the risk for bias and unfair results is unacceptable,” lawyers Steve Meshbesher and Richard Student said in the release.
Cases of officer-involved shootings should be sent to other counties or to independent state-level prosecutors, they said.
County Attorney James Backstrom said there was no conflict of interest. The shooting was investigated by the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, and members of the grand jury received “a fair and unbiased” presentation of the evidence in Kong’s death, he said in a statement Thursday.
“None of the officers involved had any ongoing or prior significant direct involvement with the office, and no involvement at all with the county attorney,” Backstrom said.
Following a wave of protests after the death of Jamar Clark last year in Minneapolis, Hennepin County Attorney Mike Freeman eliminated the long-standing use of secret grand juries for police-involved shootings in that county.
Kong, 38, of Chaska, is one of at least 11 people shot and killed by law enforcement officers in Minnesota so far this year. While deaths of blacks are at the heart of the national debate over police use of force, many of the people who die in encounters with law enforcement are mentally ill.
In Minnesota, at least 45 percent of the people who have died in encounters with law enforcement since 2000 had a history of mental health challenges or were having a mental health crisis when they died, a Star Tribune investigation found earlier this year. Yet efforts to train police to subdue them have fallen short.
Meshbesher called Kong’s death an “egregious” example of overly aggressive policing.
“This was so unnecessary,” Meshbesher said in an interview. “All they had to do was get some people to help with his medical breakdown.”
Kong was born in Cambodia and, according to the complaint, the Kong family fled when he was a young child after their village was bombed. The trauma in Cambodia played a role in Map’s mental health struggles, the complaint noted.
Kong appeared to be having some type of psychotic episode, waving his arms and stabbing at the air inside his car in the McDonald’s parking lot on March 17 when officers responded to a call of a man acting suspiciously. Police repeatedly shouted at him to drop the large knife he was holding.
Eventually, one of the officers smashed out a window and hit Kong with a Taser twice. As Kong ran from the car, officers fired.
An autopsy showed Kong had been using amphetamine and methamphetamine.