A federal judge has refused to dismiss a civil-rights lawsuit filed against an Olympia police officer by two brothers he shot in 2015 when he says they attacked him with a skateboard on a darkened street as he tried to stop them for stealing beer.
The ruling sends the case to trial, or possibly sets up a settlement, exposing the city, the officer and the Police Department to financial liability.
U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton on Friday denied a motion filed by Officer Ryan Donald and the city to throw out the lawsuit, finding there are enough disputed facts and evidence that a jury should hear the case. The lawsuit was filed last year by brothers Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson, and alleges Donald used excessive force when he shot them and that the city was negligent in training or employing him.
Donald, 37, shot the two men, who both were in their early 20s, early the morning of May 21, 2015. The officer had responded to a call that two African-American men had tried to steal beer from the west Olympia Safeway store. Donald reported he had located the men and broadcast by radio that he had been assaulted with a skateboard during an encounter. Chaplin and Thompson dispute that account, saying the officer shot them without warning as they attempted to flee.
Thompson suffered a gunshot wound to the abdomen that continues to cause him trouble today, according to the lawsuit. Chaplin was paralyzed when his spinal cord was severed by one of the officer’s bullets.
The Olympia Police Department found the shooting justified. Chaplin and Thompson were convicted of third-degree assault in 2017 following an eight-week criminal trial, although the jury rejected more serious assault charges that had been filed against the men.
The shooting sparked demonstrations in Olympia. Donald is white and Chaplin and Thompson are black. It occurred amid a wider national conversation around police brutality directed against blacks, after a string of fatal shootings around the country. The lawsuit does not allege racial bias, and the department has denied race was an issue in the shooting.
Attorney Sunni Ko, who represented Thompson in the criminal case and filed the civil lawsuit last year, said the jury’s verdict reflected the fact that they didn’t believe all of Donald’s story. In her pleadings, Ko produced a 2013 memorandum from Donald’s sergeant criticizing his willingness to wade into situations without waiting for backup, and to go “hands on” with suspects, two years before the shooting took place.
“I am concerned that this is becoming a reoccurring theme with Officer Donald,” the 2013 memo said, citing other similar instances involving the officer. The lawsuit alleges that the city and Police Department knew or should have known about Donald’s alleged tendencies to resort to unnecessary force, but failed to train him or take other action. Whether the city can be held liable, he said, is a close legal question.
“Given that Donald’s own sergeant recognized the dangerousness of his methods, it is not a foregone conclusion that the city was merely negligent in training Donald,” the judge wrote. “Given the disputed facts in this case, it is clear that Donald may have caused plaintiffs to suffer a constitutional deprivation.”
Andrew Cooley, a Seattle defense lawyer representing Donald, the Police Department and the city, said Leighton’s ruling is based on a reading of the facts as they favor the plaintiff at this point in the proceedings, and that he believes the lawsuit is frivolous.
“Judge Leighton merely found that if the plaintiffs’ stories are believed, a jury could find the city liable,” he said.
Donald, he said, was cleared by the department and the Thurston County prosecutor, and remains with the department.
“He was scared for his life when he shot,” Cooley said. “A jury unanimously agreed, convicting both Thompson and Chaplin of assault on the officer.”
“We are confident a civil jury will agree with the criminal jury,” he said.
Donald was one of several officers who responded to the shoplifting call shortly before 1 a.m., after store employees reported two men with skateboards tried to steal a case of beer. Video released from the store shows one of the men carrying a case of Corona beer toward the exit, and tossing the case of beer toward a store employee who had come to confront him.
In the video, the employee can be seen blocking the case with her hand as it lands at her feet with glass bottles breaking.
Donald said that when he tried to speak to the two men after finding them a short time later on Cooper Point Road, one of them grabbed the officer’s shirt sleeve and tried to pull him down.
The other man raised a skateboard and Donald said he thought the man was going to strike him in the head. That’s when the officer drew his gun and fired a volley of shots, striking one of the men, according to the interview.
The two men then ran into a nearby wooded area and Donald reloaded his handgun before pursuing to the edge of the woods and waiting for more officers, Donald testified in court.
The men emerged from where they were hiding and approached Donald in a threatening manner, according to Donald. He fired again, hitting each of the men after they ignored orders to lie on the ground. Officials said Donald fired a total of 11 rounds from his .45-caliber service weapon.