Bodycam footage and other evidence pertaining to the case of a 17-year-old boy who was gunned down in a confrontation with Knoxville Police Department officers in a school restroom will be made public when the time is right, District Attorney General Charme Allen said Thursday.
Allen promised the public and media will be able to view the footage once a criminal investigation into the death of Anthony Thompson Jr. is completed and any criminal cases arising from it are resolved.
Allen called a press conference just before noon Thursday in response to the numerous requests filed by media organizations — including Hard Knox Wire — seeking to have the footage released. She explained that she is bound both legally and ethically to hold off on releasing the footage until doing so won’t affect the rights of those involved in the case.
“We want to determine whether or not a crime has been committed,” she said. “Every single time, I will err on the side of the law over the demand of public opinion …. If someone is ultimately charged with a criminal act, they are allowed the right to due process where the case cannot be tried in the public or in the press prior to it being tried in the courtroom.”
The Monday afternoon shooting is under investigation by the TBI, which will turn over the results of the probe to Allen’s office so a final charging decision can be made.
According to the most recent version of events released thus far by the TBI: “After receiving the report of a student possibly armed with a gun, responding KPD officers located the student inside a school restroom at Austin-East. Officers entered the restroom. During a subsequent struggle, the student’s gun was fired. This was followed by law enforcement firing twice. Preliminary examinations indicate the bullet that struck the KPD officer was not fired from the student’s handgun.”
A few hours after the shooting, TBI Director David Rausch said during a press conference that Willson had been shot by the teen. The TBI backtracked from that claim after a spokesperson for Thompson’s family claimed instead that Willson shot himself during the struggle.
Allen said Thursday that Thompson’s family will be allowed to view the footage before it’s released to the public.
“We’re talking about a 17-year-old kid who has a family who loved him very much,” Allen said. “And before I would ever release the video showing his homicide to the public, to the press, to anyone, I would sit with that family, I would talk with that family, I would answer all of their questions first. And I would let them view that video in the privacy of my office as many times as they wanted to see it before it would be released.”
When asked about the initial claim that Thompson had shot a police officer that was later withdrawn by the TBI, Allen replied: “That is a perfect example of why we, when we’re investigating a case, should not answer questions, should not talk to you, should not tell you things that we think are true because things change in an investigation.”
Also Thursday, KPD revealed that a total of four officers were involved in Monday’s shooting. All four officers have been placed on administrative leave, which is standard procedure in the wake of a police shooting.
Lt. Stanley Cash, a 19-year veteran, was apparently the highest-ranking officer at the scene. Also present were Officer Jonathon Clabough, who was hired in 2017, and Officer Brian Baldwin, who is a 16-year veteran, according to a KPD press release.
Willson, who is recovering at the University of Tennessee Medical Center from the gunshot wound he suffered during the incident, had already been publicly identified as being involved.
All the officers except Willson are assigned to the East District patrol division, the release stated.
The issue of the bodycam footage is especially sensitive because KPD and City officials announced earlier this month that they’d finished the process of equipping each uniformed officer with a bodycam for the price of $5 million. The measure was designed to increase transparency and accountability, officials said.
Mayor Indya Kincannon issued a statement Wednesday on Twitter saying she supported the earliest possible release of video footage of the incident. Kincannon said that she’d asked Allen to release the videos immediately but Allen refused, citing her legal and ethical responsibilities as Knox County’s highest-ranking law enforcement official.
“I hear and feel the frustration, pain and anguish as we grapple with the tragic shooting inside Austin-East High School,” Kincannon said. “I support releasing any incident videos to the media & public as soon as it is legally allowed. I am committed to transparency and hope that a greater understanding of the circumstances of this tragedy will help our city heal.”
Thanks to the combination of uniform-mounted cameras and the interlinked, upgraded in-car systems that were part of the bodycam project, every second of virtually every encounter between KPD officers and the public are now recorded, officials said. Since the project was approved last summer, Arizona-based Axon Enterprise Inc. has provided 297 body-worn cameras and installed 333 in-car systems.
Thompson’s death was only the most recent tragedy in the midst of an unprecedented surge of deadly violence that has touched almost every corner of the city.
There were 37 homicides in Knoxville in 2020, more than the previous high of 35 in 1998.
Since Jan. 1 of this year, there have been at least 16 slayings in the city, all of them involving firearms. There have been at least five more homicides in the unincorporated areas of Knox County under the jurisdiction of the Sheriff’s Office.
Thompson was the fifth Austin-East student to be shot to death this semester.
.Justin Taylor, 15, was accidentally shot and killed by a friend Jan. 27. Stanley Freeman Jr., 16, was killed Feb. 12 as he was driving away from the Austin-East campus, and 15-year-old Janaria Muhammad was fatally shot outside her home on Feb. 16. Jamarion “Lil Dada” Gillette died early March 11 at a local hospital, several hours after he was brought in by a motorist who found him suffering from a gunshot wound in South Knoxville.
Two male juveniles have since been charged with first-degree murder for Freeman’s death and are waiting to learn if they will stand trial as adults. Police are still searching for the killers of Muhammad and Gillette.
Austin-East has been closed since Tuesday and will remain closed through Monday, April 19. Tuesday will be an online-only day and regular classes are scheduled to resume Wednesday. Counselors, however, will be available at Austin-East during normal school hours whether classes are in session or not, officials said.
J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Published on April 16, 2021