Our community was rocked two years ago by news that two black men with skateboards had been shot by a white Olympia police officer in an early morning confrontation. The event shook our community in part because it landed amid a national wave of shootings of black men by white officers.
Last week’s jury verdicts — which found Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin, guilty of third-degree assault on Officer Ryan Donald — brings some clarity to that case. Bryson was also convicted of a misdemeanor related to a beer theft incident at a Safeway supermarket that got the chain of events rolling.
Sentencing is yet to come.
The convictions mark a third time that Donald was — in effect — exonerated for pulling the trigger. Donald was previously cleared of wrongdoing by an outside investigation and an internal police review.
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What came to light during the trial was testimony from Officer Donald that he feared for his life. That was based on his belief that the two assailants — siblings who were wielding skateboards — were about to bring a board down upon his head, inflicting serious injuries. Unable to get a hand free to use his pepper spray, Donald grabbed a tool he could reach — his service handgun.
Basically Donald’s story held up under hard questioning from defense lawyers who appeared to be looking for evidence they might later use in a lawsuit. The verdict shows jurors believed Donald was being assaulted.
There is still a possibility that a civil lawsuit would be filed against the police.
Unfortunately, the verdicts do not completely end the criminal side of the case either. Judge Erik Price of the Thurston County Superior Court declared a mistrial on a more serious second-degree assault charge against Thompson and Chaplin. County Prosecuting Attorney Jon Tunheim is weighing whether to refile the more serious charges.
Tunheim must consider the costs and benefits in light of the facts presented at trial. It’s doubtful that another trial, coming on the heels of one that lasted roughly nine weeks including jury deliberations, is worth the emotional or financial drain it would exact from police, defendants, city budgets and our community.
There is still a chance that Chaplin and Thompson, who did not testify in their defense, could bring a civil lawsuit against the police. But the verdicts in the criminal case makes that less likely.
However the trial was going to end, this case was always a tragedy. Three lives were changed immediately — Donald’s and the two siblings who were shot.
Amidst the heightened national awareness of police-citizen shootings, it was a learning opportunity for our community and police. Led by Chief Ronnie Roberts, Olympia’s police department used the incident to push forward with the chief’s longtime goal of changing policing culture.
The City Council provided funds for officer training in techniques for de-escalating conflicts. Roberts worked openly and diligently with the newly revived Black Alliance of Thurston County to boost the level of trust between officers and many members of the communities they serve.
And at the behest of then-mayor Stephen Buxbaum in 2015, our city has been asking what tools our police need to have — so they are safe, accountable and also not endlessly second-guessed. Video from an officer’s body camera might have shed light on this incident and let it be resolved more quickly.
This effort to modernize policing should continue. The city should continue looking at whether a tax measure should be placed on the fall ballot to pay for officer training and other public safety needs. Body-worn cameras for officers may be part of this.
State law also needs to change on officer shootings. The Black Alliance of Thurston County has led an effort to pass a bill — a version of which is supported by Tunheim and Roberts — to remove Washington’s strict standard that says a police officer cannot be convicted of a crime in a shooting unless he or she shows malice.
Our Legislature must adopt a more reasonable standard. Police need to be able to do their jobs, using force when necessary.
But our community also needs the assurance that if an officer ever crosses the line into reckless and negligent conduct that he or she will be held accountable.
It is that balance that can help police to operate with the community’s trust, which Chief Roberts’ department has been winning.