Teen didn’t shoot SRO, bodycam video withheld

Anthony Thompson Jr.

A teenage boy who was killed by police gunfire in a school restroom didn’t shoot a Knoxville Police Department officer as was initially surmised, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation confirmed Wednesday. 

Although a round was fired by the gun wielded by 17-year-old Anthony J. Thompson Jr., the bullet that actually struck KPD Officer Adam Willson had to have been fired by either another officer or by Willson himself, according to the TBI.

“The role of the TBI in these investigations is to determine the facts based on the evidence and present those facts and evidence to the District Attorney General,” TBI spokesperson Leslie Earhart said Wednesday.

“During investigations, agents discover facts that may clarify initial reports. This is why our agency uses terms in our releases such as ‘preliminary,’ ‘possibly,’ and ‘reportedly.’ This update provides clarification to the initial information released on this case.”

The family of Thompson, a student at Austin-East Magnet High School, couldn’t be reached for comment. 

Earhart updated the TBI’s investigation to reflect the new findings as follows:

“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 local civil rights activist, Constance Every, had challenged the official version of events on Tuesday. She claimed that the family of Thompson (who hadn’t been identified publicly at that time) had asked her to be their spokesperson and provided her with the alternative narrative.

According to Every, Thompson never drew the firearm he was was carrying. Instead, Willson ended up shooting himself in the leg as they fought, she alleged. A second officer who was in the restroom then shot the teen in the chest, killing him, she said.

Every also said the incident was triggered by a fight between Thompson and his girlfriend earlier in the day. Thompson was terrified of one of the girl’s adult male relatives and had armed himself with a handgun to defend himself after threatening text messages were exchanged between them, she said.

Anthony Thompson Jr.

Willson, a 20-year veteran of the department, is the school’s Student Resource Officer (SRO). He is recovering from his injuries at the University of Tennessee Medical Center.

Even with the TBI recanting the earlier allegation that Thompson shot Willson, the two narratives are irreconcilable. 

There are also many other questions that have yet to be addressed by either side, including:

Why did the KPD officers enter the restroom at all? Why wasn’t it sealed off and negotiators called in?

How did the scuffle begin? Were less-lethal options like tasers or pepper spray used? 

Did the officers attempt to de-escalate the situation and, if so, what happened?  

Where was the school’s staff? Does Austin-East have a Therapeutic Crisis Intervention team and, if so, where were they? Did the staff had contact with Thompson, and were any staff persons in or near the restroom when the shooting occurred?

Both KPD and the TBI have declined so far to answer questions about what happened Monday, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation.

KPD Officer Adam Willson. Source: KPD

Hard Knox Wire has filed requests under the state Public Records law asking for access to all video footage that was shot by KPD bodycams as well as school security cameras, all recordings made by the E-911 center and all other materials generated during the investigation. The requests were submitted Tuesday and Wednesday to KPD, the TBI, Knox County Schools and the Knox County Emergency Communications District (E-911).

Neither KPD nor the school system had responded to the requests as of late Wednesday. 

Michael Mays, who handles public records requests for E-911 records, said the records were  “on hold by KPD and TBI due to an open investigation” and wouldn’t be released until those agencies gave their permission. 

The TBI denied the request Wednesday, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation. Under the state Public Records law, the investigative files of law enforcement aren’t considered public until the case is closed. Over the years, though, police agencies have sometimes released videos before an investigation is complete.

While the TBI’s Professional Standards Unit turned down the request, TBI officials seemed to concede the investigative file will become a public record once the shooting probe is completed. “Please resubmit your request at a later date,” they wrote.

There is no time limit that governs how long the TBI can take to investigate the case. 

Sean McDermott, spokesperson for Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen, said there will be a press conference today and Allen will “address issues surrounding the release of body camera evidence during an ongoing and active investigation.”

“She will also provide information clarifying some questions that have been raised about the procedure used during the investigation of an officer-involved shooting,” he said.

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. 

Tweet sent Wednesday by Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon

Mayor Indya Kincannon issued a statement Wednesday on Twitter saying she supported the earliest possible release of video footage of the incident.

“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.”

However, she continued, state law governing videos of children in school and local court orders “complicate this situation.”

“Nonetheless, I have requested District Attorney General Charme Allen allow the City to release the redacted footage from the shooting …. However, as the Chief Law Enforcement Officer of Knox County, including the City of Knoxville, General Allen respectfully declined release of this video at this time. General Allen explained that she made this decision in order to maintain the integrity of the ongoing investigation and to protect the constitutional rights of anyone who might be charged as a result of this investigation.

“I will continue to push for transparency and communication as this investigation continues.”

Thanks to the combination of uniform-mounted cameras and the interlinked, upgraded in-car systems that were part of the 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 (also called bodycams) and installed 333 in-car systems. 

The new bodycams issued to Knoxville Police Department officers.

The shooting has drawn media attention from across the country in the midst of an evolving national discussion about law enforcement’s treatment of minorities, particularly Black Americans. 

The teen was killed on the 10th day of the murder trial of former Minneapolis, Minn.  police officer Derek Chauvin, who is accused of killing George Floyd in 2020. Floyd’s death — in conjunction with the controversial deaths of other Black men and women in encounters with police — led to protests across the country, some of which turned violent or dragged on for weeks. While Knoxville saw several protests and incidents of vandalism, the local reaction was comparatively mild. 

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.

.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 a 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. 

Police tape seals off Austin-East Magnet High School after Monday’s shootout between a student and a Knoxville police officer. Photo by J.J. Stambaugh.

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

Published on April 15, 2021