The fight for Duy Ngo’s life

Duy Ngo and his wife, Mary

Duy Ngo, the Minneapolis cop who was shot by another police officer in 2003, and who settled a lawsuit against the city two weeks ago, is no longer fighting for his life, or the justice he says he was denied. He is still fighting for his reputation.

Ngo’s settlement, his allegations of corruption by the department, and the lawsuit filed this week by five African American police officers alleging discrimination, has focused new attention on the department he says he still loves.

It’s a department, he says, that has an “epidemic” of blaming the victim. He’s got five years of rumors that won’t die, 15 bullet holes, and $4.5 million to prove it.

I spent most of Wednesday afternoon talking to to Ngo about his experience.

(See the full transcript | Listen to the entire interview | See comments at MNSpeak)

From the Army to Minneapolis

Ngo, who fled Vietnam with his family on the day Saigon fell in 1975, joined the Army after his junior year in high school in Minneapolis. He found camaraderie and a purpose, serving as a medic. It is, he said, a camaraderie he never found when he later became a police officer in Minneapolis. (Listen – MP3 :48)

“There were people that I really enjoyed working with, people that I trusted. But it’s very cliquish. It’s almost clanish, with a lot of the police officers, depending on where they work, what shift they work, who they work for, who they’re friends with, what specialty units they’ve served on together. So, no, I didn’t find that same type of camaraderie; not with Minneapolis police officers.”

Getting shot… by the ‘bad guys’

In many ways, his ascension to the Gang Strike Force was perfect for Ngo. He could work independently, often alone. He was having, he says “the time of my life,” until February 2003, when he was staking out some suspected drug dens in Minneapolis, and a man approached. (Audio – MP3– 3:30)

…He pulled a gun out and stuck it in my face. I tried to disarm him. I grabbed the gun, and tried to use a disarming technique. As soon as I grabbed the gun, he shot me, to the left of the heart and below the rib cage.

I’ve been hit by 300-pound linebacker playing football, and they don’t hit as hard as a .40 caliber bullet. It hit me so hard, it threw me back in the seat, knocked the wind out of me. I had my tactical vest on, which saved my life, because it’s body armor, bullet-proof vest.

It hit so hard it split the skin in three places. It’s like if you punched your knuckles against a metal wall, your knuckles would split, because there’s bone behind it. Well, there’s no bone behind it, it just hit that hard, but it broke the skin open, left a mark that I still have to this day, caused some internal injuries, and I was fighting with this guy. We both had ahold of the gun.

I was trying to get the gun out of his hand. He shot four more times, at least four more times through the passenger door and the floorboard of my squad. At this point, the squad is full of smoke, the muzzle flash from the gun is going off right next to my face, he’s able to pull away because of this big puffy jacket, his arm was sliding in his sleeve and I couldn’t really hold onto him and he was much bigger than I was.”

Getting shot… by the ‘good guys’

Ngo called for help, chased the shooter down an alley, lost him, and then collapsed. He needed a friend. Instead he got shot again. (Listen – MP3 2:48)

Seconds later, squad 331, Officers Storlie and Conway’s squad. I see their headlights in the distance. Now I’m really hurting and now this intense pain is in my abdomen. I go to my knees. I’d already dropped the gun that was in my left hand, and then I … when I went to my hands and knees, I dropped the gun that was in my right hand.

I’m holding my left abdomen because it was hurting really bad and they stopped their squad about nine or 10 feet from me. Without any verbal warning, without any commands, without provocation, Officer Storlie jumps out and lights me up with his MP5 submachine gun.

Q: So nobody is saying, ‘freeze’? Nobody is saying ‘hand’s up’ to you? Nobody is saying anything.

A: No, not at all. Nothing was said because I guarantee you whatever they told me to do, I would have done. I wanted to be rescued. I didn’t want anything more than to get out of that bad situation. I wanted this guy caught.. It’s not a deadly-force situation. I didn’t match the suspect description, even though they say I looked like a black male — and they never said that in the beginning, that’s what I mean about this evolving story. They say that years later. ‘Oh, well, we shot him because he looked like a black male.’ Well, you can’t even shoot the black, male suspect… any black male if they’re on their hands and knees.

But I know I don’t look like a black male. I know that was an absolute lie. They had to say something to justify the deadline force, but there was only one officer — Storlie — who used deadly force. Officer Conway did not. He recognized that I was a police officer. I’m not sure how he recognized me, whether it was the badge or the insignia or just my face, but he didn’t use deadly force. He didn’t shoot. No matter what he says, he didn’t use deadly force.

The backlash

Ngo spent two weeks in the hospital, never getting a visit from his police chief, never getting a visit from his mayor, all of whom, he says, were trying to avoid him, while the department spread rumors to discredit his version of being shot by friendly fire. Looking back, perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised. (Listen – MP3 4:13)

I think that we have to keep in mind the SWAT team is very close to the police union. They’re all in bed together. I think they always try to justify even bad acts and this was a bad act. I think it’s victim blaming, which they quite often do.

We can use the example, I hate getting involved in these kind of politics but you go back to the recent lawsuit that was filed by the five black officers, that one of their high-ranking officials publicly announced that this victim who was killed was out there buying marijuana. Does that matter why he was out there? Does the victims indiscretion justify someone killing him? No. One thing has nothing to do with the other, but somehow they tried to cast him in this negative light, and I think so often they do that just so that they can somehow justify those bad actions on their parts.

Q: And that’s a recent case — last summer — then you have your case. Before either one of those, did you see evidence of that in the department as kind of a systemic thing where they would leak rumors and information about … victims or others to cover their own misdeeds or tracks?

A: I saw and heard it all the time. It was an epidemic. It was widespread throughout the whole police department. A lot of that is a defense mechanism; most police officers feel like they’re unfairly scrutinized and they’re attacked by the public and the media goes after them and reports on police actions negatively, biasly and unfairly. Even if it doesn’t get into the public arena, I heard it over and over again. The victim-blaming game. I’ve heard over these almost five years now, I’ve heard every reason why that night that I was shot why I was wrong, why I made the mistake. I’ve heard cops say why I wasn’t supposed to be out there. Whatever way that they’ve come up with to point out that if they were in that situation, they never would’ve been shot because they did the right thing and I believe that they honestly believe they have to say those things because otherwise it would become a reality to them that they would have to accept the fact that this could happen to any one of us.

At a subsequent fundraiser to help pay his medical bills (the city paid nothing), the mayor of St. Paul showed up, officers from other metro departments showed up, officers from rural Minnesota showed up. But only one official from the Minneapolis police department attended.

The settlement

At a hearing before a judge last month, in which a settlement of his lawsuit was reached, Ngo thought the department would force his resignation as a condition. Instead, they said they wanted him back. That, he says, is the best thing he’s heard in five years. But there are some things he wants not to hear. (Listen – MP3 4:45)

For as long as I stay on this police department, long after I leave and many generations to come, they’ll always tell those lies. They’ll always keep spreading those rumors.

Just two days ago, a law-enforcement student told me that a firearms instructor on the SWAT team has been bitching and complaining, has been swearing and yelling about me and how I made the police department look bad and how they offered me $9 million to quit and I wouldn’t take it and that I’d made life hard for other cops on the police department because of the policy changes and that I hurt his friend, being Officer Storlie, and whatever other things that they’ve tried to blame me for.

  • Andrea Stifano

    The American “blame” culture is completely evident here. Personally, I think it is wrong to sue to city for this situation. Ngo should personally sue the individuals involved and those involved in the coverup. Maybe then, they would take their actions a bit more seriously. Why should a person be able to sue the city for a misdeed of one person? I, as a taxpayaer, am not technically responsible and cannot do anything about it except change who I vote for the next time around.

    Typically, I don’t condone suing others but there apparently is a need in the Mpls Police Dept. Ngo should look into a libel suit and sue those who spread false rumors. These individuals need to have accountability for falsifying information.

  • Bob Collins

    Hi Andrea. The city is responsible for the same reason any employee (even in a private business) is a responsible. While on duty (and sometimes, any other time, too), the employee is an agent of the employer.

    But the city, I believe, was named in the suit and was granted immunity in the affair in federal court. But because Storlie is an employee, he’s entitled to indemnification from the city for any subsequent award.

    There’s probably an argument to be made, too, that if the city isn’t held responsible in some way, there’s no motivation for the city to provide proper training. As Duy Ngo points out (click the link for the full transcript), many changes in procedures have been made as a result of this incident.

    Still, once you get past the legalities and such, what’s left unresolved is the question of simple decency.

    A police chief not visiting a cop shot in the line of duty? A mayor not visiting in the hours after the shooting? (Update 6/14/10 – Mayor Rybak visited the hospital the evening of the shooting, but Ngo did not remember it). A new police chief that has to call a news conference to dispel rumors generated within his own department?

    This isn’t one of those situations that makes Minnesotans want to be proud of our genetic decency.

  • Chuck

    While I support the right of individuals to sue for grievances, in all fairness you have to support the police in our society if you are a law abiding citizen. If it wasn’t for law enforcement in the U.S., cities like Mpls. would resemble Baghdad, Iraq. A whole organization shouldn’t be made to look bad because of the actions of a person here or there.

    While most individuals go off to the office or warehouse for their work each day, officers have to patrol semi war zones where the most violent people are. They are more likely to come to the aid of your family than many of your liberal Minnesota neighbors would if a situation developed on your street.

  • Bob Collins

    Thanks Chuck. I think the question is whether the Duy Ngo case is one of a systemic problem in Minneapolis. If you get a chance, read the entire transcript. This isn’t a Duy Ngo vs. Charles Storlie situation.

    From all appearances, this is a situation of nearly the entire police command structure, union, and political leadership of a city, conspiring to discredit the victim of an unlawful shooting.

    And, of course, the unspoken question is: if they’re willing to do that to one of their own, what are they doing to the poor slobs on the street?

    But the real question: if the Minneapolis Police Department looks bad here, whose fault is that?

    Part of the ongoing tactics in the aftermath of this tragedy is the attempt to make this a referendum of Duy Ngo vs the GOOD and ETHICAL and DECENT members of the police department.

    That’s a shame. It should actually be the GOOD, ETHICAL and DECENT members of the police department vs the BAD, UNETHICAL and INDECENT members of the police department.

    At some point, they — the good ones — need to step forward and reassert themselves. Common sense — if not outright desperate hope, I think, dictates the belief that they are in the majority.

  • Phil Kep

    Did we forget so easily that Duy Ngo is a COP too? He was out there doing his job, police undercover work is a very dangerous and intense duty. Gangs and Narcotic make it even tougher.

    Duy called for back up and gave all the necessary and required information to his back-up cops. It was their job to rescue him, NOT shoot him with a machine gun! If anyone read the whole interview, then you would all see that he said he Loves Police Work and that 10 percent of the cops make 90% of the problems.

    Duy Ngo is the biggest supporter of the police…he laid his life on the line for all of us for years. He went after the ones who screwed him over, Not the whole police department.

    I don’t know what you readers are reading or you listeners are hearing but you need to pay attention to his words. These are not the words of a bitter or cynical burned out man. It is the words of a motivated hard-working forgiving and fair person. What would any of you people do if you were in his shoes? The man gets his balls shot off and loses the use of one arm, then the pigs that are supposed to support him lie cheat and destroy his life. And he still wants to serve the public.

    I am a retired Army veteran, I have been in combat. And the residential streets of Mpls are not a place to run around with machine guns. I am sure all the new police policies speak to the validity of Duy Ngo’s lawsuit and the fact that the council voted in Duy’s favor 11-1. If the cops had to come the aide of my family; I don’t want them bringing machine guns, especially if the shoot other cops. It is my understanding in researching the Internet, Charles Storlie has shot someone else too, a black male teenager. Storlie shot him in the back (like a coward) with a shotgun for carrying a water pistol in the kids own home. Did he give that kid a verbal warning, or did he do the same thing and just shoot him without any good reason?

    I support good cops, I do Not support bad cops. I am a former military fighting man myself and I know all to well the dangers of warfare. Residential neighborhoods are not warzone or semi-warzones or anything like it. There are kids, babies, elderly people and women and children in their homes. Soldiers and cops are not supposed to shoot their own people and the cannot break the laws.

    Obviously the court of appeals thought that it was unconstitutional to use deadly force against any person laying on the street, injured and calling for help.

  • Bobby K.

    It’s shameful when the chief of his department and the mayor don’t even come to see him. It’s pretty much standard procedure and a simple act of consideration. If my chief or I didn’t visit a wounded officer the union would go nuts.

    It sounds like this officer was left high and dry by his department and some fellow officers. I’ve been a Capt. for a while in So Cal and I’m disgusted by such incompetance and indifference.

    For the sake of Minneapolis and it’s law abiding citizens I hope the department has changed and have done a thorough examination of their policies. Its not difficult to recognize the bad apple on your squad or during your watch.

    A trained officer knows that positive identification is essential and a rudimentary police skill. The officer was in the direct line of sight and headlights of the squad car. How could you not see him? Why would you just discharge your weapon on an unarmed person?

    These are simple police procedures. Perhaps there is much more than just incompetence going on here.

    Hopefully they have gotten their act together by now. If not, they just might get some more unwanted attention, but this time it won’t only be from the media but from one big bureaucracy that will surely disrupt department cohesiveness. Here’s a hint three letters; first one starts with a D and the last one ends with a J.

    I just hope citizens aren’t discouraged and don’t loose faith in honorable LEOs who put their lives on the line every time they put on the badge.

  • David Michael

    What a poorly written story. One would think that with all the McDonald’s money that NPR received they could hire someone with basic reporting skills. I guess it’s hard to hire people in Minnesota, or perhaps the interviewer is an intern from the local middle school. In any event, it’s a confusing mess.

  • Bob Collins

    David: Maybe I can help you. What part don’t you understand?

    There is no “story” written here. There is a long transcript of an interview, with a couple of quotes pulled out .

    Have you read the entire transcript? What part confused you?

    If you haven’t read the transcript, you should do so.

  • Phil Kep

    I think David Michael has some preconceived notion of what He Thinks this story should say. Now After David read it, sloppily and carelessly, he decided to attack the writter of this fine piece of “history in the making.”

    So far, this interview and questions and answers is by far the most insightful, factual, un-biased, clear, concise and amazing story that anyone has ever written on the Duy Ngo shooting. This gives you a unique prespective of what the man endured for 5 years. We also see the corruption of the highest members of the City Government and the Incompetence of the MPLS. Police.

    Most importantly, we got to experience a perfect example of a David VS. Goliath battle. In the end the little guy won, and he doesn’t gloat, or speak ill of the entire police department. He says he still wants to be a cop. How much more dedication and Hoonor can you ask for. I hope to meet this Officer Duy Ngo someday, I just want to shake his hand, and tell him I am proud to live in america, because people like him defend this great country with thier lives.

    As for you David, If you cannot understand these words that you have poor reading skills or you just don’t like cops who got shot by other cops. Which is it? I am sure if you ask Bob Collins he will explain it to you…Great work Bob I am looking forward to seeing more of your work on the Duy Ngo case.