By Emilia Beuger and Matt Stroud, ACLU of Pennsylvania
Will Christopher Thompkins’ killing be forgotten?
Thompkins and his ex-wife, Brenda, awoke around 4 a.m. on January 22 to someone standing beside their bed in their home near the eastern border of Pittsburgh’s Larimer neighborhood. As the intruder fled the room, Thompkins asked for Brenda’s pistol. He went downstairs to protect his mother who was sleeping on the first floor. “He was just saying, ‘My mom, my mom,’” Brenda Thompkins told TribLive. “That’s all he was worrying about.” As he went down the stairs, Brenda called 911 and went to a roof behind the house. She surmised that an alarm company may have called the police sooner, however, because when Thompkins reached his front porch, police were waiting for him.
And they killed him.
Thompkins was shot dead that morning through the front door of his home by two Zone 5 police officers. Brenda heard the two gunshots from the roof. Later, as police escorted her downstairs, she saw Thompkins’ body covered by a blanket on the stairs. The man who had broken into their house, Juan Brian Jeter-Clark, was handcuffed and sitting on the couch. Thompkins was pronounced dead at 4:08 a.m. “They shot the wrong guy,” Brenda told reporters.
She was right. We know that somehow in the break-in’s aftermath, those officers mistook a man defending his home and family for a burglar.
What we don’t know is how that happened — and how it might be prevented in the future.
As is typical in Pittsburgh police shootings, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office, lead by Stephen A. Zappala, took charge of investigating what happened. The two officers involved in the shooting — whose names have not been released by any public official — were placed on a 10-day administrative leave before they went back to their regular beats.
It’s been radio silence since then. As we approach the eight month anniversary of the shooting, it’s worth wondering why the investigation has taken so long, and why there seems to be little public push to either hold these officers accountable or explain why they should be let off the hook for killing a man.
Media coverage and errant public statements may explain some of the stall. An article published by TribLive on January 22, 2017, described how Thompkins had “run afoul of the law” years before he purchased the house he would later be killed in. KDKA implied he probably shouldn’t have been allowed to carry a firearm — as if that somehow justified his killing by police. Mayor Peduto even felt it was necessary to say, “Mr. Thompkins obviously had some issues in the past,” during a statement he made after meeting with the family. Beth Pittinger, executive director of Pittsburgh’s Citizen Police Review Board, chided the coverage: “I think it’s tragic that the media, and to some extent others, have quietly excused this because the guy had a pretty bad criminal record.”
A second explanation is more troubling: As the months roll past, it’s possible that the investigation of Christopher Thompkins’ shooting is being slow-walked by the District Attorney’s Office in the hopes that it’ll be forgotten. “[If the] officers returned to duty and are back on the force, you can almost conclude that the investigation is done,” said Donald Tibbs, a Drexel University law professor. Yet the investigation drags on nonetheless.
In the meantime, both the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office have said nothing substantive about the shooting, instead invoking silence based on an “ongoing investigation.” While a Right To Know Law request from ACLU-PA has turned up a vague incident report and the name of the responding Zone 5 officers — Joshua Dengler and Richard Cerrillos — not much else is available to the public. That includes body camera footage from the incident, and an affidavit of probable cause, both of which are being withheld because they are “investigative in nature.”
“I don’t know of any legal rules or rulings that say that district attorneys must withhold information from the public,” Tibbs said. So then it is a question of their policy and practices. “District attorneys have a lot of discretionary power,” he went on.
Pittinger said it was “very unusual for an incident like this to be that quiet.” And while she and Brandi Fisher, president of the Alliance for Police Accountability, acknowledged that the shooting may have been an accident, they question why the public has been left in the dark.
Fisher places responsibility for the delayed and opaque process squarely on the district attorney’s office.
“I think they hold too much power, especially in Allegheny County,” she said. “There is no accountability.”
But there’s a possibility that Stephen Zappala could prove her wrong — by bringing this investigation to a close, and making public not only the affidavit of probable cause from the incident but the body camera footage as well.
Only then, Christopher Thompkins’ killing might not be forgotten.