Officers cleared in Thompson killing by internal affairs probe

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(From top left, clockwise) Officer Brian Baldwin, Lieutenant Stanley Cash, student resource officer (SRO) Adam Willson, and Officer Jonathon Clabough.


Police Chief Paul Noel explains the findings of the department’s internal affairs probe into the death of 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. during Wednesday’s press conference. (Screenshot from video of press conference)

The four Knoxville Police Department officers involved in the shooting death of a teenage boy in an Austin-East Magnet High School restroom were cleared of wrongdoing by an internal affairs investigation, officials said Wednesday.

Although both Police Chief Paul Noel and Mayor Indya Kincannon described the death of 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr. as a tragedy during a Wednesday afternoon press conference held at KPD headquarters, they also said the four officers did the best they could in a frightening situation.

“We know that this incident damaged relationships between our department and the community. Rest assured that I am committed —  and the Knoxville Police Department is committed — to put the work in to repair those relationships,” said Noel.

The long-awaited results of the department’s internal affairs investigation came as no surprise to anyone following the case, and the outcome’s predictability may determine how receptive the community will ultimately be to those efforts.

It was clear Wednesday, for instance, that the teen’s loved ones weren’t about to accept the department’s decision to exonerate its own officers as anything more than an exercise in public relations. 

His mother, Chanada Robinson, and his best friend, 18-year-old Gralyn Strong, are pursuing a $2.75 million lawsuit demanding that the City and County adopt a series of policies dubbed “Anthony’s Laws” meant to keep similar incidents from happening again. (See related story at https://www.hardknoxwire.com/new-lawsuit-filed-in-death-of-austin-east-teen/)

“KPD’s press conference today is about controlling how this tragedy looks to the media, not addressing the changes that are needed within KPD to stop police from killing another child,” said Robinson’s attorney, Margaret Held.

It took more than 16 months for KPD’s Internal Affairs Unit to complete its review of the shooting and for the 211-page report to be released to the public. Noel and Kincannon said the main reason the IAU took so long was that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation had to completely wrap up its criminal inquiry into the incident first. 

IAU investigators were focused on whether the four officers — Jonathon Clabough, Lieutenant Stanley Cash, Brian Baldwin, and SRO Adam Willson — had violated any departmental policies. The TBI and Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen had already ruled the officers wouldn’t be charged with any crimes.

Only Willson was found to have committed an infraction: failure to turn on his bodycam, for which he received a letter of reprimand. 

On April 12, 2021, the officers were trying to take Anthony into custody in a school restroom for allegedly assaulting his girlfriend when a gun he was holding inside his hoodie’s front pocket fired once as he fought the officers, striking a nearby trash can. Clabough then fired twice, killing Anthony and wounding Willson.

“Our officers were put in an incredibly difficult and unpredictable situation and they never could have anticipated it would end the way it did,” Noel said. “I and the members of the Knoxville Police Department are going to continue to support these four officers however we can. I am also hopeful the members of our community will continue to support them, as well.” 

He added: “This in no way diminishes how tragic that day was for everyone involved. The lives of the Thompson family, the community, and our officers were forever changed that day.”

Anthony Thompson Jr.

Numerous questions were raised about the officers’ actions in the aftermath of the shooting, and Noel addressed some of them during Wednesday’s press conference.

When asked why crisis negotiators weren’t deployed, Noel said that officers didn’t have all the relevant information and weren’t even sure he was in the restroom when they went looking for him. 

“They had no reason to believe he was armed or that he was aware they were looking for him at the time,” he said.

When asked why the officers didn’t use de-escalation techniques, Noel said they had no time to do so because the violent encounter lasted only 11 seconds.

“There was absolutely nothing we did to escalate that situation,” the chief explained. “I absolutely feel that the officers handled this very chaotic situation in the best way they possibly could.”

In the civil lawsuit pending against KPD, the plaintiffs argue the department didn’t follow the requirements of the Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) between KPD and the school system and that Anthony’s death could have been averted had it done do. 

They’ve also accused the officers of not rendering medical aid promptly to Anthony.

Noel said the MOA required that officers should operate in the schools in “the least intrusive manner possible … I absolutely believe they did that in this case.”

He also said the officers did the right thing by first making sure the scene was secure and then summoning medical assistance. “This all happened within a matter of seconds,” he stressed.

Held, however, argued that the AI report shows that getting Anthony help wasn’t at the forefront of the officers’ minds.

“If you read the Internal Affairs report, Officer Cash states that he was so concerned about how this would look to the media that he decided to step over Anthony to wash the blood off his hands rather than giving medical attention to a child,” the attorney said.

The full report can be found at https://cdn5-hosted.civiclive.com/UserFiles/Servers/Server_109478/File/Police/OpenRecords/AE-Case-File.pdf

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on August 18, 2022.