Kevin Khottavongsa's father died in 2015 after Brooklyn Center police shot him in the back with a Taser, leading to an $825,000 civil settlement and the family's hope that others would never face the same loss.
But Khottavongsa's frustration mounted as police killings kept happening. In Falcon Heights to Philando Castile. In south Minneapolis to Justine Damond and George Floyd. And now, with the shooting of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center on Sunday, at the hands of the same police force that Khottavongsa believes has done little to improve.
"It doesn't feel like it's over," he said. "It's like the fight that never stops."
Kevin, 33, and his sister Sherry Khottavongsa, 27, recently recounted their family's ordeal at his kitchen table as they sobbed and consoled each other. They shared pictures of their father — one of him goofing off while sledding, another of him holding a thip khao, a Laotian basket for serving sticky rice — as they spoke of his humor and dedication to his children.
Sinthanouxay Khottavongsa, 57, grew up in a farming village in Laos and came to the U.S. in the 1970s after the Vietnam War. He made a living over the years as a cook and handyman, working manufacturing jobs and rehabbing houses. Sinthanouxay settled in St. Paul's Frogtown neighborhood 20 years ago and was fond of gardening, cooking traditional Laotian laab, going to church and teaching his children about the building trades.
Kevin and Sherry saw how much he struggled to make his way in a new country with only a fifth-grade education and lack of fluency in English. Sinthanouxay did his best to learn but would confuse words, tell others to slow down, and rely often on his kids to translate.
On Jan. 16, 2015, Sinthanouxay went to a friend's auto-repair shop in Brooklyn Center. Several customers instigated a fight at the adjoining laundromat after the staff asked them to leave. A brawl started outside, and Sinthanouxay came with a crowbar from the shop in what his friends described as an effort to defend them.
Brooklyn Center police officer Alan Salvosa drove up without sirens, ordered everybody on the ground and yelled "drop it, drop it, drop it" at Sinthanouxay, who had his back turned. Sinthanouxay's children believe their father didn't understand the command. He began to turn his head when Salvosa, who is Filipino American, hit him with a Taser. He fell and hit his head on the concrete outside the laundromat with such force that a friend, witness Leang Sarin, said it sounded like a watermelon dropping.
Salvosa said he saw Sinthanouxay raise the crowbar as if to strike people nearby and feared for their safety. Witnesses gave conflicting accounts; some, including Sarin, described him as unthreatening. Dashboard video of the incident did not start until right afterward, when other cops came, because Salvosa parked at a slight distance facing away from the scene.
Sinthanouxay wailed. Police ordered him to stay down. He started to sit up. Salvosa fired the Taser at him again. He wrote in a police report that he did so because he feared Sinthanouxay would use the crowbar, though the video shows officer Cody Turner had already taken it away.
Police put a limp Sinthanouxay into the back of a squad car, where he soon fell to the floor, then dragged him outside as they waited for an ambulance that had been called on a "routine" basis without sirens. In the video, Turner is heard saying to another officer that Sinthanouxay fell from the seat on purpose, was playing games and being a "drama queen."
"He's lucky he didn't get freakin' shot [by Salvosa.] ... He wasn't listening to our commands and I figured it was probably English-related," said Turner. After the ambulance arrived, Turner claimed, "He's in pout mode now where he's pretending like he's dying."
The Khottavongsas rushed to the hospital, where Sinthanouxay fell into a coma after suffering a traumatic brain injury from his fall. Kevin thought back to the last time he saw him, when he dropped off a birthday gift of house slippers and told Sinthanouxay about his new corporate job. Sinthanouxay told Kevin he was proud, though he teased him, "You got a good job and you just bought me slippers?"
He was taken off life support two days later.
The family sued the Police Department, alleging the officers used excessive force and showed deliberate indifference to serious medical needs.
"The way that they dismissed the severity of the issue," Kevin said, "the way that they handled my dad and just talked [about] him was very …"
"Inappropriate," Sherry jumped in. "Disrespectful."
"There's a stronger word for it: inhumane," said Kevin. "You just used force on him knowing that his injuries could be critical, but just listening and watching what happened, it felt like they didn't care."
A 2017 order by U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson rejected the officers' claim of qualified immunity on the matters of excessive force and indifference to medical needs and noted that there were questions as to whether Salvosa deployed his Taser too quickly or needed to use it at all. The order also stated that if the case went to trial, a reasonable jury could conclude that the officers knew of Sinthanouxay's injuries and disregarded them.
They settled the case the following year. Attorney Jason Hiveley, who represented the department and the officers, said the resolution contained "no admission or judicial finding of wrongdoing."
The Khottavongsas hardly found peace. Sherry is still in therapy; some nights Kevin hardly sleeps. They find it exhausting to keep seeing other people die in police encounters: Such cases open up the wounds of their own loss and push them to relive somebody's else tragedy, too.
Kevin felt that way after Floyd's death, believing that the officers reacted to his claims of medical distress with a similar indifference as the cops did in his father's case.
And he took issue with how some emphasized Floyd's imposing size, his criminal record and the drugs in his system, believing those were just the typical excuses to turn victims into perpetrators. After all, he noted, his father was 5-foot-4 and 130 pounds, had no criminal record and was sober, and police viewed him as a threat, too.
Turner wrote in his police report that Sinthanouxay — whom the autopsy showed was not intoxicated — grunted and moaned as if under the influence of alcohol, and later testified that he assumed so because a lot of people the police dealt with were drunk.
Kevin admires the activists marching through Twin Cities streets but has done much of his grieving in private, away from the chants and bullhorns. As a real estate agent, he also feared alienating clients by publicly criticizing police practices. Speaking out has not come easily.
But after Floyd's death, Kevin went to a few protests. He decided to share his story at a January rally in St. Paul.
"It took too long because I'm Asian and usually … we don't like confrontation or to tell people what our business is like," he told the crowd. "But I'm sick and tired of it. I'm the new generation. Every time I turn on the TV, I'm angry to see people of color … die from the people that are supposed to protect us."
Kevin had been following the Chauvin trial, believing that a murder conviction could be pivotal for families like his. Then he learned of Wright's shooting — after police said an officer mistook her gun for a Taser — and faced new anguish. Sherry cried all day.
They want to find a way to offer hope and support to Wright's family and the movement for police accountability.
"It's six years now and what's changed?" Kevin asked. "The whole idea of how policing is done is that they approach the situation guns blazing versus actually taking a step back and assessing the situation before acting."
The Wright shooting prompted the resignation of Brooklyn Center Police Chief Tim Gannon, who took the helm months after Sinthanouxay died. Gannon said in a court deposition that Turner's language and tone at the scene was cold and indifferent, but overall the officers' actions did not fall outside the department's procedures and policies. Gannon said the officers were never disciplined.
The Khattavongsas believe the deaths of their father, Wright and Floyd did not have to happen.
"It's just a matter of setting up the mind to not go into war-machine mode and be more compassionate," Kevin said. "It all comes back to our rights to be treated as humans — not to be barked commands at, not to be thrown around, dragged, have a knee put on your neck for so long, not to be mistakenly shot."
Maya Rao • 612-673-4210