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.