Fault Lines
13 September 2017

Donnell Thompson, Another Victim of Needless Police Militarization

August 11, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Following the shooting of Donnell Thompson, yet another unarmed young black man, Captain Steve Katz, Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, remarked:

No question this is a terribly devastating event.

Thompson was shot and killed because police were searching for an armed carjacking thief. Never mind that Thompson was not involved in the car theft. Never mind that Thompson was simply passed out and laying in a yard. Never mind that Thompson was not armed. He could have been involved in the carjacking. He could have been armed and posed a threat to other officers. That was enough for our military to engage and fire upon the enemy combatant police to take him out.

To backup just a little, a carjacker had stolen a vehicle at gunpoint in the early morning hours. The carjacker lead police on a chase, exchanged gunfire, and then abandoned his newly acquired vehicle and fled on foot to elude capture. The carjacker fled into a Compton residential area and successfully, at least at first, evading police. About that same time, a concerned citizen called 911 to report finding a man lying in his front yard. Fearing the man might be connected to the carjacking, police responded in force.

Police in armored vehicles: BearCats, a Ballistic Engineered Armored Response Counter Attack Truck. In essence, something akin to a tank. Specially outfitted for law enforcement purposes, BearCats include half-inch thick steel armored bodywork with .50 caliber rated ballistic glass capable of multi-hits, blast-resistant floors, gunports, roof hatches/turrets, and agency specific equipment and/or modifications such as lights, sirens, battering ram, winches, thermal cameras and spot lights. This particular unit is described as including a turret (a roof hatch) from which the deputy could fire upon Thompson with a M4 assault rifle while remaining covered within the vehicle’s armor.

So, police arrive and find Thompson lying in the yard. He is unresponsive to commands. Flash-bangs are detonated. Yes, flash grenades, stun grenades, or sound bombs, as they are called, were exploded to get his attention. Again, Thompson remained unresponsive. Not to be known for giving up, deputies then fired upon Thompson with rubber bullets, a less-than-lethal option available for threatening situations. Being struck repeatedly apparently jolted Thompson into reality. Perhaps unconscious, asleep, or passed out, Thompson was now awake and in overdrive. He jumped up and moved toward the armored vehicle.

Reciting those magic words, the deputy perched in the turret atop a BearCat, feared for his safety and that of his fellow deputies and fired upon Thompson, striking him twice in the torso. Unknown to deputies on this scene, other deputies had located and taken the carjacker into custody at 4:59 a.m., just seconds before the concerned citizen called 911 to report seeing a man lying in his yard as he took out the morning trash. Despite the carjacker being in custody, the 911 responding deputy reported he had found the carjacker and armored vehicles quickly appeared to assist.

This week, the department acknowledged Thompson was in no way connected to the carjacking:

That was July 28. For almost two weeks, the Sheriff’s Department insisted that Thompson was a second suspect in the carjacking.

On Tuesday, the department admitted it had killed an innocent man.

“No question this is a terribly devastating event,” Capt. Steve Katz said during a news conference. He said there was “no physical evidence” connecting Thompson to the carjacking or shootout and promised a “thorough” and “complete” investigation into the shooting, according to the Associated Press.

Yes, this is an extremely devastating loss of a young innocent life. It is a tragedy. It is horrific, and it ought to spark more conversation and debate about the militarization of our police. Police arriving in heavily armored vehicles with assault rifles and tons of backup were afraid of a young man lying in the grass? Yes, he could have been armed, but he wasn’t. Yes, he could have been involved in the carjacking, but he wasn’t. Yes, his life could have been saved, but it wasn’t.

The 20-year deputy who shot and killed Thompson has yet to be named, though he has been transferred to desk duty.

The militarization of our police has created a war zone. Those outside the armored confines are the enemy. They will be taken out at all costs. The police response is aggressive and hostile, no longer serving and protecting but militarizing against the citizenry. Do we really need a tank, or multiple tanks, to respond to a call about someone sleeping in the yard?

Yes, there are times where heavily armed police forces might be necessary: hostage situations, active shooting scenes, large riots, and even terrorist threats. But for someone sleeping in the yard? For a car thief? Where do we draw the line? And just how counter-productive is the militarization? And just how counter-productive is the militarization? Police see a war; they are outfitted for battle with military styled uniforms and equipment. Their attitude adjusts. And aggressive behaviors, such as shooting an unarmed man from the confines of the armory, become the norm. Over the top police actions give officers a sense of entitlement to that behavior. It’s okay to show force against the enemy, right? No wonder we have a war between police and citizens.

What possible threat could Thompson have been to the deputies in the armored vehicles?

“The commands being ignored, they used less-lethal force that was ineffective, the guy was running away. … Those factors are very relevant in leading them to believe, ‘This guy has done something wrong. This is our guy,’” Ed Obayashi, a Plumas County sheriff’s deputy and attorney who advises several law enforcement agencies in the state, told the Times.

Oh yes, he was running away. There’s the threat that justifies military police action. Stop the enemy yard sleeper before he retreats. Just another terribly devastating event.

23 Comments on this post.

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  • Brad
    11 August 2016 at 9:30 am - Reply

    This better win the Friday Fail. I do not want to read a more egregious story this week.

    • JoAnne Musick
      11 August 2016 at 9:44 am - Reply

      Thanks Brad – you should tell Chris to add this to the Friday Fail and then get all your friends and family to vote!

      Seriously, this is such a travesty. At worst, this unresponsive guy laying in the yard should have been approached, possibly handcuffed for safety, and questioned to determine why he was laying in the grass. First clue to law enforcement, the grenades did nothing. He’s likely unconscious! Approach, while covered by your brethren, and assess!

      I cannot imagine why an officer would need to fire upon him from an armored vehicle. He posed no credible threat.

      • DaveL
        11 August 2016 at 9:55 am - Reply

        Yes, reading the description of the incident, the first thing that occurred to me is that if you find an adult lying on the ground in a public place, and they cannot be roused, it’s a medical emergency and you call an ambulance.

        Of course, maybe I define “cannot be roused” differently than the police do, as it never would have occurred to me to try stun grenades or rubber bullets.

        • JoAnne Musick
          11 August 2016 at 1:45 pm - Reply

          cannot be roused = more force necessary
          got to justify the military equipment cost

    • CLS
      12 August 2016 at 7:37 am - Reply

      Brad:

      Normally I write the Friday Fail material early Thursday morning.

      Because you (and several others) requested it this week, this story made the cut.

      Thanks for your input.

  • Brad
    11 August 2016 at 12:56 pm - Reply
    • JoAnne Musick
      11 August 2016 at 1:50 pm - Reply

      It really goes to the magic of the officer saying “i thought he might be armed and a threat”

      It’s not necessarily bad journalism, but it is indicative of public opinion: officers are given the benefit of the doubt and don’t actually have to be correct – they don’t really have to see a weapon, just claim there might be a weapon.

      • Brad
        11 August 2016 at 2:34 pm - Reply

        I guess I consider it bad journalism because no expert should be giving an opinion until we see what the police videos show. Until then, efforts by the media should be focussed on getting access to all the police and non-police videos of the tragic incident. If it were good journalism then the story would be as follows:

        POLICE REFUSE ACCESS TO ANY VIDEO

        Despite numerous requests from XYZ News, police have refused to grant any access to videos of the Donnell shooting, and refused to even acknowledge that such videos exist. More specifically, police have refused to say whether their tank included a video camera and whether the officers present were wearing body cameras.

        XYZ News will keep working to obtain any videos, and, if we get them, we will then talk to experts about whether the shooting can be legally justified. If there are no videos, then we will ask experts whether that seems highly suspicious, and indicative of police dishonesty, in this camera friendly day and age.

        Notice how much better this article is, from a journalistic perspective, than ABC News’s artie.

  • Rick
    11 August 2016 at 7:33 pm - Reply

    Not to make light of this shooting but perhaps if Compton is a war zone the residents bear some responsibility. A quick search shows murders up 300% this year.

    • JoAnne Musick
      11 August 2016 at 10:01 pm - Reply

      Yet not every person in Compton deserves to die, especially at the hands of the police. Some incidents are unavoidable; others very much avoidable. They could have saved a life, but they didn’t.

      • Rick
        12 August 2016 at 3:01 pm - Reply

        Straw-man much? Dom you do understand that it usually takes two sides to make war don’t you? Wikipedia says, “War is a state of armed conflict between societies. It is generally characterized by extreme aggression, destruction, and mortality…”

        That this young man lost is life is terrible and maybe the police response was over the top but maybe not. In wars, your word, innocent people die all the time.

        • DaveL
          12 August 2016 at 3:05 pm - Reply

          How exactly does this “two sides to make war” thing work when one of those “sides” is unarmed and passed out on somebody’s lawn?

        • Greg Prickett
          12 August 2016 at 9:14 pm - Reply

          Rick, I was a cop for over 20 years, and served during the middle of the “wars” on drugs and crimes.

          It wasn’t a war. It never has been and never will be and never should be. We do not want a society where the police are at “war” with citizens. That’s called a police state.

          It’s the reason that this is going to get worse. You’ve got sovereign nutters that gunned down cops in Vegas. You’ve got BLM nutters that are responding to the fact that the police shoot 1,000 people a year and that 20% of those (1 in 5) are unarmed.

          You’ve got police showing up in armored vehicles that an unarmed guy could not hurt, but they’re “scared” so they kill him.

          It’s BS and it needs to stop, but it won’t. And what will happen is that things will continue to deteriorate until we do have a war with the police on one side and the people on the other. That won’t be pretty and then you will have a true example of “extreme aggression, destruction, and mortality…”

          • Rick
            13 August 2016 at 11:26 am -

            Greg,
            I don’t think it’s a war either, JoAnne does and I was responding to that. I’m not even a fan of police except that I know we need them. I’m also old enough to know that police are people just like the rest of us. I also know that police work attracks bullies and creates bullies. But it’s not all cops nor o I believe it’s most cops. I get tired of seeing the blanket attacks against police for the actions of a few. Let’s do get rid of the bullies and nut jobs but without vilifying the good cops of which I assume you were one.

            Serious question for you as an ex cop. If you had been involved in this man hunt and had seen Mr Thompson on the ground as you drove by would you have stopped to investigate him?

        • JoAnne Musick
          13 August 2016 at 12:05 pm - Reply

          Thanks for the insight Rick. Yes, I realize it takes two sides to make a war. You are correct: innocent people die in war all the time. But that’s exactly why our streets should not be treated like war zones. Our police do not need to be militarized. They do not need to act like they are at war with the citizens. Of course, some citizens are to blame too.

          Yes, nuts and bullies are sometimes attracted to police work. They should be weeded out. Sometimes, it is the mere fact that they are given “war toys” that brings out the crazy. Give them tanks, assault rifles, grenades, etc. and those who are susceptible sometimes go to far.

          There truly are so many great cops. It’s the few that give them a bad name. No doubt police should have investigated the man laying in the grass. But did they really need to send 2 tanks? Did they really need to fire upon him from the turret?

          • shg
            13 August 2016 at 12:24 pm -

            There truly are so many great cops. It’s the few that give them a bad name.

            Cite? If you’re going to Gertrude to the “few bad apples” theory, beloved by police union officials, you’ll have to prove it.

          • Rick
            13 August 2016 at 3:49 pm -

            Then we agree. And I certainly agree that the militarization of the police is a terrible thing as are the SWAT teams. When a group of people are dressed to kill there’s only one one thing to do. Hand a guy a hammer and everything looks like a nail.

            But, a serious questions for you. There have been 2700 shootings in Chicago so far this year. Murder is up by 62% so far this year. More people, young men, are killed in Chicago than Iraq. I think my figure is correct that cops are 18 times more likely to be killed by a black man than a white so the cops do have reasonable fears. How would you handle it if you were a cop in Chicago?

          • shg
            13 August 2016 at 5:11 pm -

            You’ve set up a false paradigm. Each instance is individual, and the aggregate numbers (I have no clue if your numbers are right, and can’t be bothered to look because they don’t matter) are irrelevant. A cop in Chicago handles each situation according to its own unique set of facts and circumstances and the law. No matter what the numbers, cops don’t get to assume any random black man (or anyone) is more likely than not a killer and kill first without lawful reason.

          • Rick
            14 August 2016 at 10:45 am -

            shg
            And you’ve set up a strawman because of course nothing I said implies nor suggest that it’s okay for cops to kill for unlawful reasons.

            The numbers should matter. Let me give you some more. Last week 24 people were killed in Chicago, another 86 shot and wounded. So far this year 404 people have been killed and another 2217 shot and wounded. Virtually all the assailants and victims were black. Among those killed so far 30 have been innocent children and women. In contrast the Chicago police have killed 6 people this year. That’s .014 % of the total homicides. While every death is terrible I don’t see .014% of deaths at the hands of police as being the biggest homicide problem blacks have in Chicago. I think telling cops to patrol those high crime areas and pretending that they aren’t at greater risk and won’t react differently there is fantasy.
            Police shooting blacks are low hanging fruit and I am not excusing the obvious indefensible shootings. Cops are easy to vilify and blame rather than deal with the real problem. A blanket condemnation of cops does nothing to stop the real problem which is young black men killing other young black men.

          • shg
            14 August 2016 at 11:28 am -

            Neither the amount of words murdered nor your efforts to give them the appearance of statistical significance changes your conflation of two entirely separate problems. You’ve said your piece. Enough already.

  • “Legal Experts” And The “Heebie Jeebies” Of Killer Cops | Simple Justice
    12 August 2016 at 3:14 pm - Reply

    […] reasonable cop believing he’s threatened with harm. But what Moskos was talking about was the killing of Donnell Thompson, found passed out on a lawn in Compton by cops in a Bearcat with a gun turret on […]

  • Leroy
    13 August 2016 at 1:51 pm - Reply

    First the Bearcat is not a Tank, it is an Armored Personnel Carrier (APC). The primary difference, is that a Tank is an armored mobile platform for a high Caliber Cannon. While an APC is pretty much what the name says, an armored propel mover.

    That said, many lay persons often confuse any armored vehicle for a Tank. And no one expects Lawyers to know the ends and outs of military equipment. 8P

    Regardless of terminology, the Bearcat is an outstanding example of an APC. There is no reason for anyone in it to ever feel afraid for their life. It would take specific anti-armor weaponry to do more than scratch the “commando black/camo green” paint job. None of which are concealable. So unless we start having a problem with civilians using shaped anti-armor explosive devices in the US, a Bearcat (and its passengers) is effectively invulnerable to anything this poor man may have had on him.

    That this policeman was so afraid for his life that he took Mr. Thompson’s, at the very least demonstrates he is unfit to wear a badge. Back when I was in the Military, someone this afraid would have been quietly reassigned to permanent mess duty. As a junior NCO it was part of my job to bring this to the attention of the Senior NCO’s. I wonder what the equivalent police practice would be…

  • Fault Lines Friday Fail
    19 August 2016 at 11:29 am - Reply

    […] contributors.  Last week’s “winners,” commanding over seventy percent of the vote, were the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department for murdering Donnell Thompson with war toys while he lay passed out in a yard.  Check out this […]