KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A newly filed federal lawsuit slams Knoxville Police Department officers for doing "nothing" to help a 17-year-old student they fatally shot following a confrontation in a high school bathroom.
But three police use-of-force experts contacted by 10News said officers followed proper protocols and procedures.
On April 12, 2021, officers approached Anthony Thompson Jr. in the bathroom of Austin-East Magnet High School, intending to arrest him on a domestic violence charge.
During the 11-second struggle inside the school bathroom, officers said they feared for their lives when they realized Thompson had a gun concealed inside the pocket of his hoodie. After Thompson's gun fired, Officer Jonathon Clabough shot and killed Thompson and inadvertently wounded a fellow officer.
Thompson died on the bathroom floor. It is unclear how Thompson's loaded 9mm pistol went off. He'd asked an adult acquaintance to procure the gun for him at a shop just days beforehand.
Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen declined to prosecute the four officers. She said the shooting was justified and Clabough acted in his own self-defense and in the defense of the other officers.
Three veteran policing experts contacted by 10News agreed. They all said the shooting was justified because Thompson had a gun and did not follow police instructions to take his hands out of his hoodie.
At WBIR's request, the three watched bodycam video from the fatal encounter.
"He didn't obey the verbal commands, even though he acted like he was going to, he didn't do it," said Mark Baughman, who worked in Florida law enforcement for more than 3 1/2 decades and has witnessed deadly police shootings before.
"[Thompson] is dictating what the officers have to do and what they're trained to do, which is protect themselves and the people around them once he produces that weapon," Baughman said.
But he said if he were in that situation, he would not have fired his service weapon for fear of hitting a fellow officer.
"That's really close quarters, and it's really, really tough," Baughman said.
In fact, when Clabough fired a second time on April 12, he hit Officer Adam Willson in the leg.
The difference in care provided to Willson versus Thompson is another feature of the lawsuit filed by Thompson's mother. It's also a concern for Austin-East Principal Nathan Langlois in the minutes following the shooting, according to a school security incident report obtained by 10News.
"Mr. Nate Langlois was very upset saying that KPD was helping the officer and not the student laying on the floor," wrote a responding Knox County Schools security officer.
Body camera video showed Officer Brian Baldwin dragging the injured Willson out of the bathroom, where another Knox County security officer administered a tourniquet to his leg, according to an incident report.
In the meantime, officers inside the bathroom were searching Thompson's limp body and handcuffing him. His friend, Gralyn Strong, can be heard pleading with officers to help Thompson.
Strong has joined Thompson's mother, Chanada Robinson, in suing the department alleging "severe emotional and psychological stress and trauma."
"You will still make every valiant attempt to handcuff that suspect until you ensure the safety of the location and the safety of those on scene. They did that right away," said Jillian Snider, a retired NYPD officer and adjunct lecturer at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Snider said officers followed all the proper protocols.
"There's really nothing I think they could have done differently. They called for medical aid immediately," she said. "They did everything they possibly could."
On body camera video, officers can be seen checking on each other and washing their hands once Thompson is in handcuffs, but before they flip him over and before medical aid is provided.
"The video shows that what they did instead [of providing medical aid] is search him, cuff him and wash their hands," said Margaret Held, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Thompson's mother.
In a statement, a Knoxville Police spokesperson said "the involved officers summoned medical aid immediately once the situation was deemed safe." A call for an ambulance can be heard on the body camera video about 30 seconds after the shooting.
No matter what officers or paramedics did, a medical examiner's report indicated Thompson would have died from his wounds. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan told DA Allen that as Allen reviewed the case.
In his experience, Baughman said officers typically try to keep shooting victims awake and alert as they await ambulance personnel. "You didn't hear that," he said after reviewing the Thompson body camera footage.
"It made me believe it was pretty severe at that time, and [Thompson] may have been deceased at that time," Baughman said. "But nonetheless, I personally may have turned him over sooner."
It took officers nearly two minutes before they roll Thompson over. By then, a school nurse had arrived to help stop his bleeding.
M. Quentin Williams, a former FBI agent and former federal prosecutor, said officers did everything they could in the few minutes before ambulance crews arrived.
But he said the encounter didn't have to end this way — and likely would not have if Thompson hadn't been armed or had followed the officers' commands.
"This was all avoidable — and it was avoidable on many levels. I just think it's so tragic," he said.
Williams now works with law enforcement to help build trust within their communities and prevent tragedies like Thompson's shooting.
"Another young person lost to gun violence. It's lawful gun violence, but gun violence," he said. "Another family that mourns and another neighborhood and another community. The effect that has on the school, the school system and our nation is all avoidable."
The Knoxville Police spokesperson also said: "Due to pending litigation, the Knoxville Police Department cannot offer any further comment at this time and additional inquiries should be referred to the City of Knoxville law department."
A city spokesperson declined to comment on the pending litigation but offered a statement on behalf of Mayor Indya Kincannon: "April 12, 2021 was a tragic day for the Thompson family, our officers, the school system, and our entire city. Anthony Thompson died before reaching his full potential and my thoughts remain with his family today.”
The shooting remains under internal review by the Knoxville Police Department.
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