A jury found Thursday that Olympia police officer Ryan Donald did not violate the constitutional rights of two brothers he shot in 2015 while responding to reports that two men matching their description had tried to steal beer from an Olympia supermarket.
The jury also rejected a theory that Donald was negligent in his shooting.
Had the jury found otherwise, the federal court verdict out of Tacoma could have cost the city of Olympia millions, according to Andrew Cooley, a defense attorney who represented the city in the case.
“This is a case where we had a $20 million gun stuck to our head,” Cooley told The Olympian after the verdict was announced.
Lawyers on both sides of the case confirmed with The Olympian that this resolution represents the end of a case that began over four years ago.
The lawsuit centered on two opposing accounts of what happened May 21, 2015, when Donald shot Bryson Chaplin and Andre Thompson.
Both sides agreed Chaplin was caught stealing beer at a supermarket on Olympia’s west side in the early morning hours of May 21, 2015. According to a police investigation of the incident, an employee told police a man had thrown a case of beer at her when she confronted him for trying to steal it.
Donald saw Chaplin and Thompson, two black males who matched a description of the supermarket suspects, walking north in the 1200 block of Cooper Point Road. Donald then stopped his car and told the brothers to stop, according to the police investigation. Both sides agree Chaplin and Thompson didn’t follow that command.
The next events leading up to Donald shooting the brothers were the subject of debate in the civil case.
Attorney Sunni Ko, who represented Chaplin and Thompson in this case and the criminal case, alleged Donald shot the brothers unprovoked as they came out of the woods. They had fled into the woods from Donald before changing course when they heard other officers coming toward them.
Ko told The Olympian it was not in dispute that Donald yelled at Chaplin to get down, and when he came out of the woods he did not. It also wasn’t in dispute that Thompson cursed at the officer and that a witness heard him yell “come at me.”
Lawyers for Donald and the city maintained, though, that Donald shot Chaplin after Chaplin attacked him with a skateboard, causing the officer to fear for his life, and that Donald shot Thompson when Thompson approached him. He thought Thompson was going to take his gun.
“Officer Donald shot Plaintiffs because he was afraid they would kill him,” the defendant’s trial brief reads.
The gunshots injured Chaplin’s spine and caused paralysis. He’s now confined to a wheelchair and requires full-time care, according to the lawsuit. Thompson, the suit reads, “sustained severe physical and emotional injuries.”
The brothers were charged in the 2015 incident, after the Thurston County Prosecutor’s Office considered a police investigation report and determined Officer Donald “was acting in good faith,” according to The Olympian’s previous reporting. The city’s Shooting Review Board found that Donald’s actions were “within policy” and didn’t “precipitate the use of force.”
Chaplin and Thompson faced charges of two counts of second-degree assault against Officer Donald and Chaplin faced an additional charge of fourth-degree assault for his role in the supermarket incident that launched the series of events, The Olympian reported.
At the end of an eight-week criminal trial, a jury found the brothers guilty of one count of third-degree assault in the encounter with Donald, a lesser charge. Jurors couldn’t agree on the other second-degree assault charge, and the judge declared a mistrial. Jurors found Chaplin guilty of fourth-degree assault for the supermarket encounter.
Both brothers were sentenced to jail time, according to The Olympian’s previous reporting.
Ko told The Olympian the most important thing about the case, in her view, was that, when asked during a criminal trial why he didn’t transition to use less lethal force, Donald responded “I had my firearm out, and it was easier.”
“The outcome represents to me that if you don’t get down when you’re ordered to do so by the police, and you scare a police officer, that even today you are allowed to shoot people for not following police officers’ commands,” Ko told The Olympian Thursday.
In a trial brief, and in closing arguments Wednesday afternoon, attorneys for Chaplin and Thompson argued Donald’s account of the 2015 encounter was inconsistent and not credible.
“How many inconsistencies do you need to hear before you realize he is not worthy of the friends, his fellow officers who came into this courtroom and vouched for his excellence? No matter how he surrounds himself with their fragrance, their perfume, he cannot rid himself of his own stink, and their goodness cannot shield Officer Donald from Officer Donald,” attorney Sunni Ko said during closing arguments Wednesday.
The plaintiffs’ trial brief included a memo from a police sergeant who expressed concern around a “recurring theme” of Donald not waiting for backup where “common sense and sound police tactics call for more than one officer.” A review from another sergeant mentioned Donald’s reports were often lacking in sufficient detail. The brief also mentioned a lack of records showing Donald had attended required training.
In his closing arguments, Cooley called the civil case a “referendum on how we’re going to treat” people like the supermarket employee who originally called to report the theft that set off the night’s events. Ko alleging Donald is a liar and not worthy of his uniform were “very serious allegations,” he said.
“This is a restorative justice moment for all of us,” Cooley said as he addressed the jury. “Ryan Donald took appropriate and reasonable action, he acted constitutionally, he’s being accused of outrageous things. You have the chance to clear his name.”
Ko refuted the idea that the case was a referendum in her response, saying instead it was about whether Donald was a credible witness. And at the end of the day, she said, “I don’t think any of that mattered to the jury.”
“At the end of the day, Andre did not get down,” Ko told The Olympian. And, she said, the previous jury found Donald must have been scared. “And if you scare a cop, you’re going to get shot and it’s OK.”
The trial lasted over two weeks, and the jury deliberated for roughly three hours before returning with their completed verdict form.
When U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton read the verdict in favor of Donald and the city mid-morning Thursday, Cooley reached over and put a hand on Donald’s shoulder, and Donald ultimately embraced his lawyers after the verdict was read.
The family of Chaplin and Thompson, Ko said, is “terribly disappointed” following Thursday’s verdict, “but they will do their very best to move on with their lives.”