Five-year investigation finds police misconduct in Chinatown mom knife threatening case

Yu Fen Huang(third from left) with family members and her defense attorney Linda Yu(second from left) after the acquittal. (World Journal archive photo in 2014)

One San Francisco police officer’s Cantonese translation was found flawed and misleading in a 2014 Chinatown mom knife threatening case. But the conclusion of misconduct took five-plus years to make, irritating the Public Defender’s office.

Yu Fen Huang, a Toishanese-speaking monolingual janitor who lived in Chinatown with her two teenage daughters, was arrested on July 19, 2014. She allegedly held a kitchen knife while cooking and said “I’ll chop you up” to her daughters because of some family arguments. The elder daughter called 911, and the incident led to a series of arrest, restraining order, and prosecution of criminal threats and child endangerment to Huang. She’s represented by a public defender in court and acquitted in October 2014.

According to the press release from the Public Defender’s office on October 22, 2014, a “mom losing her cool is not a crime, jury finds”, and the office accused that the wrongfully-translated content in the police report by a Cantonese-speaking officer turned the life of “a law-abiding mother” upside down.

More than five years later, the Department of Police Accountability(DPA), the investigator of police misconduct, published a thorough report detailing the police involvement in this 2014 Chinatown case and found the officer with several counts of misconduct, including failure of proper translation, misrepresentation of the truth, and writing an inaccurate report.

The Department of Police Accountability investigation took over five years to make the conclusion. (DPA report)

One of the major translation errors in the case was whether Huang sawed the knife in and out of her daughters’ door to frighten them.

In the police report, the officer, who served as an interpreter, wrote that Huang admitted of stabbing a trapdoor with a cleaver where her children were hiding. However, a DPA review of the recorded translated interview between Huang and the officer does not include any admission from Huang about wedging a cleaver to the door.

The DPA report concluded that the officer's conduct was “improper”, and the officer “was grossly negligent by not reviewing his recording of the interview”.

The cultural incompetency also existed in the interrogation after the arrest. During the interview, Huang selected Cantonese as the language but said a few words that may have been in Toishanese. But the officer, who did not understand Toishanese, chose not to ask for clarification and assumed he understood the general idea of what Huang was trying to say.

“[T]he named officer failed to provide effective and accurate language services”, the report stated.

A five-plus-year investigation

Several anonymous complaints were filed against the police officer, who provided the interpretation, on December 19, 2014. And the date of the completion of the DPA investigation is five-plus-year later, on February 12, 2020. The DPA report is published in July 2020.

After the report published, the Public Defender’s office, who fought for Huang in court, sent a letter to DPA requesting an explanation for the time-consuming investigation. The letter also disclosed that the name of the involved Cantonese-speaking officer is Sam Yuen.

“A five-plus-year investigation into the complaint against Officer Yuen is inexplicable on its face,” wrote Danielle Harris, a Managing Attorney for the Public Defender’s office. She also asked for information regarding DPA investigation protocols to ensure future similar delays will not occur.

Sharon Woo(烏小萱), the Chief of Operation of DPA, explains to the World Journal about the DPA protocol.

Sharon Woo, formerly the highest-ranking Chinese American in San Francisco’s District Attorney’s office, now is the Chief of Operation in the Department of Police Accountability. (Youtube)

“When a case brought to DPA, the requirements are we need to finish our investigation and present our findings the (Police) Chief and the (Police) Commission within a certain amount of time”, said Woo, “which is a year”.

Woo emphasized that DPA almost always finishes the report on time, “unless there are extenuating circumstances” like officer-involved shooting and triggering criminal investigations.

But in this translation misconduct investigation, Woo revealed that the DPA did finish its own part within a year. Citing privacy laws, Woo declined to further comment on specific cases or disclose any recommendations of discipline to any officers, but she hinted that the misconduct investigating process can get longer due to the appeal by the officer.

“Oftentimes, officers that do not agree with our assessments, investigations, or recommendations, they will appeal that,” Woo said. DPA won't be responsible for the appeal, and the appeal process often “takes a great deal of time until an actual closure of a case.”

Woo is formerly the Chief Assistant District Attorney in San Francisco, setting the record of being the highest-ranking Chinese American in the District Attorney’s office. She quit the job after the election of Chesa Boudin and switched to DPA.

San Francisco Police Department issues a response to the World Journal saying Officer Sam Yuen is currently assigned to the Field Operations Bureau (patrol) but declines to confirm any of the misconduct or involved officer’s name because “personnel matters are confidential”.

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The Chinese language version of the stories appeared on the World Journal on August 14 &15, 2020.

Bilingual journalist. San Francisco-based.