A Knoxville Police Department investigation cleared the officers involved in the 2021 shooting death of 17-year-old Anthony Thompson Jr., but reveals they did not immediately provide first aid as the teenager lay dying on the floor of an Austin-East Magnet High School bathroom.
The internal affairs report, obtained exclusively and reported by Knox News before it was subsequently released on the department's website, was completed more than a year after officer Jonathan Clabough killed the teen, sparking the city's largest sustained protest movement in a generation.
Police Chief Paul Noel was unequivocal in his support for the officers during a press conference Wednesday reviewing the findings. The report found none of the department's use of force policies were violated.
"Based upon my review of this case and my 25 years in law enforcement, the use of force and actions of our officers were justified and they were policy of the Knoxville Police Department," Noel said. "I absolutely feel that our officers handled this very chaotic situation in the best way they possibly could."
Noel called Thompson's death a tragedy and acknowledged the damage the shooting caused to the department's relationship with the community.
"I am very hopeful that the community, our community, my community as I now live here, is going to rally around our officers and rally around this community," he said. "This absolutely was a tragedy, but this is also a time for us to heal as a community.
"Austin-East has to heal, our community has to heal, and we have to move forward. As a police department, these officers have to move forward. Our community has to move forward."
The investigation's conclusion did not satisfy state Rep. Sam McKenzie, who represents part of Knoxville and is an Austin-East graduate.
"I hesitate to rush to judgment in affairs that are not under my direct control and I don't have all the of the information as to whether the shooting was justified or not," McKenzie told Knox News on Wednesday.
"However, I strongly believe measures could have taken place that would have allowed KPD to de-escalate their response when entering the bathroom. I sincerely hope KPD, the city of Knoxville, and the district attorney do not let the investigation end here. I think we can all agree that mistakes were made on all sides that led to this unfortunate event. I, along with the rest of the community, am waiting to hear further information regarding last year's shooting."
Thompson, who was incapacitated by Clabough's bullet, was left on the floor for at least two minutes without medical aid as he died, even though a cop who was shot by one of his fellow officers received immediate medical attention and a lieutenant took the time to wash his hands while standing over the teen. It took more time to summon a school nurse to provide medical help after Lt. Stan Cash realized he didn't have the expertise to help Thompson.
The only infraction of department policy was by officer Adam Willson, who did not turn on his body camera during the April 12, 2021, encounter. He explained to investigators he was trying to respect the privacy of students who might have been using urinals as police entered the bathroom, and he didn't have extensive experience with the new cameras. He was reprimanded for the infraction with a letter in his personnel file.
The investigation exposed more questions about the lack of medical attention given to Thompson, who lay handcuffed and bleeding for nearly two minutes before Cash realized the teen had been severely injured. It took minutes longer for a school nurse to arrive after Cash realized Thompson's injuries were more severe than he was trained to handle, the lieutenant told investigators.
Noel addressed the delay in rendering aid, saying he felt officers acted as expeditiously as possible to make the scene safe before requesting medical assistance, saying that happened "within a matter of seconds."
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In a video of the shooting released last year by the Knox County District Attorney General's Office, Cash can be seen standing over Thompson's limp body and washing blood off his hands before rolling the student over to determine how hurt he was.
Noel signed off on the report that was completed in May, as did Knox County District Attorney Charme Allen, whose office cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing in the days after the shooting, saying Clabough shot Thompson in self-defense.
The report provides key revelations from the KPD investigation into Anthony Thompson Jr.'s killing.
Police said they were told before approaching Thompson that he did not like dealing with cops
Before the officers arrived at the school on April 12, 2021, Willson, the school resource officer, told them Thompson was known to avoid police or to be hostile in interactions with them.
This is important because police made no effort to de-escalate their encounter with Thompson, who was contained in the bathroom, even though school officials routinely found ways to give Thompson time to approach stressful encounters more calmly.
The warning from Willson is corroborated by an email from Assistant Principal Ryan Milani to Thompson's mother the day of the shooting. The email is contained in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation file, a portion of which was previously obtained by Knox News.
The email lays out the school's plan to handle Thompson when he was upset and included Milani's knowledge that Thompson didn't interact well with police. The school had a de-escalation plan for Thompson that included letting him walk a lap.
Knoxville police officers' new body cameras didn't work properly during the encounter
Earlier this month, KPD technical services supervisor Julie Small told a group that the Thompson Jr. shooting was KPD's first major test of the department's body cameras after officers had been fully equipped three weeks before the confrontation.
While the shooting was captured on video, only two of the four cameras worked properly. Willson's body camera wasn't turned on and another officer's camera fell off during the altercation. The shooting became an immediate learning experience for the department, she said.
Noel said Wednesday he doesn't think the camera malfunctions prevented investigators knowing fully what happened during the encounter.
The on-scene lieutenant didn't act immediately to aid Thompson, who was handcuffed and bleeding out
Cash, who did not fire the fatal shots, said he didn't render aid to Thompson for roughly two minutes because his mind was racing during the chaotic minutes after shots were fired.
"Lt. Cash said that in that moment he was reassessing the scene and taking in a lot of information: determining the severity of Officer Willson's injuries, calling for EMS and other officers and locating (Thompson's) weapon," the summary states.
"Lt. Cash also mentioned that he knew it was close to school releasing for the day and was considering how to handle the release of the kids while directing resources to the bathroom."
Cash, who is Black, also said he instantly started thinking about "the media narrative portraying officers killing Black citizens in the community."
Cash washed his hands before helping Thompson, who was prone and handcuffed on the floor
Cash told investigators he felt he needed to wash the blood off his hands after he touched Thompson, who was bleeding severely from the gunshot wound. "Lt. Cash stated that every year in in-service KPD officers are taught about blood borne pathogens, therefore he knew he needed to wash the blood off his hands."
Community police reform advocates who have seen the body cam videos were critical of Cash for not starting CPR on the student, who was still alive at that point.
What we know
Thompson was killed April 12, 2021, after four officers converged in the bathroom where he and a friend were hanging out as Thompson cooled off from an argument earlier in the day with his girlfriend.
His girlfriend had left school to go home, and her mother called police to complain that Thompson had put hands on the girl.
The girl's mother, Regina Perkins, told officers Thompson was known to carry a handgun.
Thompson was carrying a handgun in the front pocket of his hoodie because he feared for his safety, especially after his girlfriend's mother sent him a series of threatening texts, according to a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Thompson's family.
Body camera footage revealed four officers wound up inside the narrow bathroom: officers Clabough and Brian Baldwin, school resource officer Willson and Lt. Cash. They surrounded Thompson, who was in a stall and wearing a backpack, and began pulling him out of the stall.
Thompson implored the officers to "wait, wait" as they grabbed for him, and made no aggressive moves.
As the officers grabbed Thompson his gun discharged into a trash can. Baldwin immediately dropped from Clabough's view. Clabough mistakenly believed Baldwin had been shot, so he fired, striking Thompson in the chest with the shot that killed him.
Clabough fired a second shot because he thought Thompson was about to shoot Cash, the DA's office said. That shot struck Willson in the leg.
The city had previously shown how it was likely to portray the incident. In a response to the family's federal civil rights lawsuit filed earlier this summer, city attorneys said Thompson's death "was caused by his own actions alone," and that he wasn't "initially compliant" when asked by officers to stand up and remove his hands from his hoodie pocket.
The TBI also completed its investigation earlier this year, but the report is not publicly available. The TBI typically reviews police shootings.
Teenagers in Knoxville, particularly at Austin-East, were scared and tense in 2021. Thompson was the fifth of six Austin-East students who lost their lives to gun violence that year (in all, eight teens were killed by gunfire in Knoxville in 2021).
After police killed Thompson, activists put together sustained demonstrations calling for police accountability and reform. Those demonstrations picked up momentum when Allen, the DA, initially refused to release the body cam video, then declined to charge the officers.
All summer, marchers took to the streets. City Council and County Commission meetings were interrupted. Demonstrators were arrested.
Liz Kellar contributed to this report.
Tyler Whetstone is an investigative reporter focused on accountability journalism
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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: Knoxville investigation clears cops in Anthony Thompson Jr. shooting