In 2008, I was a junior in college at West Virginia University. I didn’t have class on Fridays which made it easy to visit my sister in Pittsburgh, PA for a long weekend. On May 23rd I did just that.
My sister’s birthday was the day prior. She wanted to get a new ear piercing as a gift to herself so we decided to head to our favorite body shop before grabbing burritos at Mad Mex. I honestly can’t remember anything that happened before we walked into the restaurant, but I vividly remember what happened next.
Within minutes of being seated we were debating whether to get the watermelon or jalapeno margaritas. I settled on jalapeno. I looked up from my menu, past my sister’s head, out the extra-long windows overlooking the street. It seemed fairly empty with the exception of a few people across the road leisurely walking away from the restaurant. All of a sudden, I saw a frail-looking man standing directly in front of the first window. He couldn’t have been more than 120 pounds soaking wet, and he was steadily walking very, very slowly. I remember thinking to myself that something wasn’t right, and it looked like he might need some help. Then I noticed what seemed to be a kitchen knife in his hands which he raised above his head. Seconds later a police officer entered the frame pointing a gun.
Almost as quickly as I had noticed the man, I saw him collapse on the ground.
His name was Nang Ricky Nguyen. He was killed by a Pittsburgh police officer. He was experiencing a mental health crisis.
I was shook. For weeks, I couldn’t move past what I witnessed. Late at night I would obsessively Google to find out details of what exactly happened that day – Who did I see die? What really happened? Who was the police officer? Was he reprimanded? Why not? Why did the police cordon off Mad Mex and interview most of the seated guests, but not my sister and me? Why didn’t I speak up?
I learned that Mr. Nguyen was steps away from his apartment when he was fatally shot. He was born in Thu Duc, near Saigon, Vietnam. He left via rescue helicopter in 1975 after the fall of Saigon. Mr. Nguyen landed in Guam, then moved to California, then New Mexico, Michigan and ultimately Pittsburgh where his life ended. I learned that Mr. Nguyen had a brother and many half siblings in the US and abroad and that he was 47 at the time of his death.
Mr. Nguyen’s family filed an excessive use of force lawsuit against the City, but it was dismissed.
I think about Mr. Nguyen every single time I hear about another police shooting. Every. Single. Time. I think about him every time there is a conversation about the lack of adequate mental health resources readily available in communities. Mr. Nguyen didn't need to die at the hands of the police. He needed readily available treatment and support.
Would Mr. Nguyen still be alive if the crisis was responded to differently? What if someone trained in de-escalation had responded to the scene instead of an armed officer? What if the hundreds of millions of dollars that make up our police budgets were used to fund mental health services, social workers, and mental health response teams?
My story isn’t unique, and sadly, neither is Mr. Nguyen’s. Our country is ravaged by the deaths and injuries of numerous Black people and people of color at the hands of the police. Viewing race-based trauma is traumatic, and it’s even more so for Black people whose lives are violently taken away at the hands of police at alarming rates. Even a single exposure to police violence is enough to trigger severe stress and anxiety. No one should have to witness what I did. No one should have to bear the trauma of witnessing police violence. No one should have to live with the trauma of losing a loved one to police violence.
Our system is broken, but we have the opportunity to fix it. A new 2021 ballot measure in Cleveland ensures independent oversight of investigations into police misconduct, and gives final authority on discipline decisions to a board of community leaders. This charter amendment specifically expands the investigative and disciplinary powers of the Civilian Police Review Board, an independent body appointed by the Mayor that investigates alleged misconduct by police employees.
Show your support for Citizens for a Safer Cleveland and sign the petition to get REAL accountability and justice on the ballot!
We all deserve common-sense police accountability. Period.