One year later: Wounds from Olympia officer-involved shooting still raw

Investigators comb the scene of a officer-involved shooting on Cooper Point Road Thursday as two men suspected of attempting to steal beer from the west Olympia Safeway were shot by an Olympia police officer early Thursday morning.
Investigators comb the scene of a officer-involved shooting on Cooper Point Road Thursday as two men suspected of attempting to steal beer from the west Olympia Safeway were shot by an Olympia police officer early Thursday morning. sbloom@theolympian.com

The 1200 block of Cooper Point Road Northwest looks about the same as it did a year ago.

Street lights are still scarce, and the road is still dark at night. It’s bordered by trees and a few houses. The occasional car passes by, but few people are out and about.

But while that block remains unchanged, Ryan Donald, Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin have changed irreparably.

Bryson Chaplin, 22, is partially paralyzed and must use a wheelchair.

Andre Thompson, 24, doesn’t know how to tell his 7-year-old daughters that he was shot.

Ryan Donald, 36, has received threats against himself, his family and his home.

One year ago, the three men were brought together by a shoplifting and assault call, a pursuit and a shooting. Thompson and Chaplin had been suspects in a theft and assault at the nearby Safeway when Donald encountered them on the 1200 block of Cooper Point Road. Donald confronted them. Thompson and Chaplin allegedly tried to attack the officer with their skateboards.

Donald, who said he feared for his life, pulled out his gun and shot both men.

Their lives — and the city of Olympia — changed as a result.

Within hours, city residents began looking for ways to address the concerns the shooting raised.

Several demonstrations took place throughout the summer and fall, with most ending peacefully, but a few ending in violence or arrests.

A new group, the Black Alliance of Thurston County, formed, with the goal of changing the state’s use of force statute, and furthering the interests of the county’s black residents. Hundreds of residents participated in forums throughout the year — some organized by the Black Alliance and Olympia Police, and others by an ad-hoc committee formed by the city — sharing their thoughts on race, biases and the role police should take in society.

And steps were taken to provide more training to police.

As the anniversary approached, Thompson and Chaplin declined The Olympian’s request for an interview, citing legal concerns because they are awaiting trial.

Donald also declined requests for interviews.

However, Crystal Chaplin, mother of Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin, agreed to talk about the last year. She said her sons are recovering emotionally and physically — but progress has been slow.

“They’re just overwhelmed right now, They don’t know what to do with themselves,” Crystal Chaplin said. “They get so emotional. One of them will be talking to me, and the other will start crying. I don’t know what to do, so I just hug them both and say it’s going to be OK.

Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin are scheduled to stand trial Aug. 15, 2016

“People keep telling me that there will be a new normal, but I don’t know. I don’t even know what normal is anymore,” she added.

Olympia Police Chief Ronnie Roberts said the year’s events have been hard on Donald, too. He said using deadly force is always life-changing for an officer — it’s something they’ll always carry with them.

The community response also has been difficult, he said.

“I think Ryan (Donald) probably feels like he has a target on his back,” Roberts said.

The lasting effects of the shooting

Crystal Chaplin said the weeks and months following the shooting were especially difficult.

Her older son, Andre Thompson, was transported to Tacoma General Hospital, where he had one surgery.

Younger brother Bryson Chaplin remained in Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for a month, where he underwent surgery to repair a damaged lung, among other injuries. She said he still has a bullet lodged in his spine and can’t move his legs, forcing him to use a wheelchair. But she said removing the bullet could leave him a quadriplegic.

“He’s in pain constantly, every day,” she said. “He wakes up in pain, he goes to sleep in pain.”

While Bryson Chaplin was in the hospital, she and her daughter, Jasmine Thompson, took turns staying with him for a week at a time. Crystal Chaplin said she learned how to care for her son’s wounds, changing bandages and putting in catheters.

This kind of work wasn’t entirely new. Before the shooting, Crystal Chaplin worked as a caregiver for the elderly. But caring for her own children has been a lot more difficult.

“It was emotional, very emotional, taking care of my own kids,” she said. “Especially cleaning their bandages and their wounds. Just seeing the damage on their bodies. It was overwhelming. I broke down crying.

“Andre broke down crying when he saw himself in the mirror. He didn’t want to look at himself,” she added.

Instead of returning to work, Crystal Chaplin said she has been taking care of her sons full time. The medical bills have piled up — not everything is covered by insurance. She said that Bryson Chaplin needs a new wheelchair, and she has created a GoFundMe page in the hope that the community will help with the mounting expenses. It can be found at gofundme.com/pkvmfch5.

The family is still living near where the young men were shot, but Crystal Chaplin said they’re looking for a home that is more accessible by wheelchair.

Their home is a two-story, and the shower is on the second floor. To bathe, Bryson Chaplin has to climb out of the wheelchair and haul himself up the stairs. The ordeal has led to minor injuries, she said.

(Bryson Chaplin) listens to his music and he wants to get up and dance so bad, but he can’t. That was his happy place, dancing and singing.

Crystal Chaplin, mother of men shot by Olympia police

“One time he pulled his arm out of the socket,” Crystal Chaplin said. “Because he’s still numb, he didn't even know it until we went to physical therapy and they told him his arm was dislocated.”

But the physical toll the shooting has taken on her sons is nothing to what they’ve experienced emotionally. Crystal Chaplin said that of her sons have experienced flashbacks, and Andre Thompson slept with her for several nights following the shooting.

Andre Thompson lost his job while he was in the hospital. And because the family doesn’t have a car, it’s been difficult to find a new one.

One of the hardest adjustments for Bryson Chaplin is being in a wheelchair. Crystal Chaplin said he feels like people stare at him, and he’s not used to the attention.

He’s also lost one of his passions: dance.

His mother said that before the shooting, he planned to audition for the television show “So You Think You Can Dance.”

“He listens to his music and he wants to get up and dance so bad, but he can't,” Crystal Chaplin said. “That was his happy place, dancing and singing. I’d say that’s one of the things that has impacted him the most.”

Who are the Chaplin-Thompsons?

Andre Thompson (left) and Bryson Chaplin were both shot by an Olympia police officer on May 21, 2015. Their mother said the experience has left them closer than ever. Crystal Chaplin Courtesy

Crystal Chaplin said the family is originally from the small town of Woonsocket, R.I. They moved to Vancouver, Washington, about 10 years ago to be closer to her sons’ father, who works in construction.

“We love Washington,” Crystal Chaplin said. “It’s beautiful. There are so many things to do.”

She has four children. Her eldest son still lives in Rhode Island.

The four children are full siblings, despite earlier reports that Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin were stepbrothers or half brothers.

Andre Thompson is a father, with twin 7-year-old girls who live in Vancouver. Crystal Chaplin said that despite becoming a parent at a young age, he’s a devoted father.

“He loves his girls so much,” Crystal Chaplin said. “He likes to cook for them, and he takes them outside and gets them on their bikes. I’m so proud of him. He was young when he had them. I never expected him to be that good as a dad.”

The family moved out to Steamboat Island in late 2012, taking advantage of the quiet community and proximity to Carlyon Beach, Crystal Chaplin said. They moved into Jasmine Thompson’s west Olympia home in February 2015, only months before the shooting.

“We didn’t know anything about living in town,” Crystal Chaplin said. “We knew there was a Burger King and a Safeway and a Rite Aid, and that was it. We didn’t even come downtown until (the shooting) happened.”

“The boys were really excited because they were closer to the skate park, closer to the stores,” she said about living in town.

The brothers have always been close, Crystal Chaplin said.

“They’ve always been together,” Crystal Chaplin said. “They have a real brother bond. They get into their little arguments now and then, but then it’s always, ‘I love you dude,’ and ‘I love you too, monkey.’ 

The city’s reaction

“This was a learning moment for me,” Roberts said. “For members of the black community, race is always an issue. It doesn’t necessarily matter what we intend. We’ve all been impacted by media, by language, by culture and by our upbringing." Tony Overman toverman@theolympian

The afternoon following the May 21 shooting, former Olympia Mayor Stephen Buxbaum and Police Chief Ronnie Roberts hosted a press conference at Olympia City Hall.

When asked by a journalist whether Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin’s race could have motivated the shooting, Roberts responded: “There’s no indication that race was a factor.”

A year later, he said he regrets that comment.

“This was a learning moment for me,” Roberts said. “For members of the black community, race is always an issue. It doesn’t necessarily matter what we intend. We’ve all been impacted by media, by language, by culture and by our upbringing.

“If I could do it over, I would likely say that ‘We’re going to look at everything, including whether race was a factor,’ ” he said.

That comment still irks Black Alliance of Thurston County co-founder Karen Johnson, and Caro Gonzales, who has been an active voice in the protests that followed the shooting.

“I said to Chief Ronnie (Roberts), ‘How can you say race isn’t an issue?’” Johnson said. “How can it not be when the dispatcher said it was two African American males? No, let’s just go ahead and own this.”

Gonzales said promoting that level of “colorblindness” fosters a racist culture in the Olympia Police Department. It’s better, she said, for people to talk openly about their racial biases and try to combat them.

“It’s a lie to say that the Olympia Police Department is better than the Ferguson Police Department, than the Baltimore Police Department,” Gonzales said. “The thing is, we are just like any other city. We’re racist, and we need to combat that.”

Johnson and Gonzales also take issue with the Olympia Police Department’s internal review process.

The lack of transparency in the process was troubling, Johnson said.

The shooting prompted the formation of an internal review board, composed of Deputy Chief Steve Nelson, Lt. Aaron Jelcick, Officer Jason Winner, Deputy City Attorney Darren Nienaber and Edward Prince, executive director of the state Commission on African American Affairs.

The board was tasked with answering two questions: Did the force used by Officer Donald adhere to the policies of the Olympia Police Department? And did the actions of Donald precipitate the course of events that ultimately led to the use of force? If so, were those actions reasonable and appropriate?

The board cleared Donald of all wrongdoing.

VIDEO: Olympia Police Chief Roberts announces internal review on shooting

Flanked by Mayor Stephen Buxbaum (right) and Asst. City Manager Jay Burney Olympia Police, Chief Ronnie Roberts announced on Sept. 2, 2015, an internal departmental review of the May shooting incident by Officer Ryan Donald. Earlier Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim announced this afternoon that Olympia Police Officer Ryan Donald will not face criminal charges for shooting two skateboarders after responding to a May 21 supermarket theft call.

Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian.com

Johnson said that while she’s not sure that Donald shot the men because they’re black, she does think that Donald should have been reprimanded.

“As much as I admire Chief Ronnie (Roberts), I was not impressed with how it was handled,” Johnson said. “I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt because I don’t know just how much his hands were tied.

“I do believe that if we knew that Officer Donald was a renegade, I’m sure he knew that too. So I suspect that while publicly the story was one thing, I want to believe that privately Officer Donald got a good piece of someone’s mind about what is acceptable and what is unacceptable,” she said.

Roberts said he also wants to change the way internal reviews are handled.

While the board adequately answered the two questions posed to them, it would be helpful for the community to see more of what went into the decision. Showing more of the analysis would increase transparency, he said.

“I think there’s a lot more work left for law enforcement and how we work with the community,” Roberts said. “Transparency is more than just a word.”

But overall, Roberts said he thinks that efforts to move toward more transparency following the shooting went well.

The department almost immediately put up a website where statements from both Roberts and Buxbaum can still be found. Visitors also can find a tape and transcript of the 911 call from Safeway that served as a precursor to the shooting. The Police Department posted arrest demographics from 2014, and the demographics of the Police Department itself. The findings issued by Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim, the basis for his charging decision, also remain on the site.

The Olympia City Council allocated $294,000 for police training in the 2016 budget

Roberts said he’s also happy with the department’s relationship with the Black Alliance, and credits the group with securing city funding for police training. The Olympia City Council allocated $294,000 in the 2016 budget that Roberts said will be used for fair and impartial policing training, as well as leadership training and deescalation training.

“That’s what we were hearing from our community, that they wanted our officers to have implicit bias training,” said Olympia Mayor Cheryl Selby. “We have a lot of new officers entering the department, and they need to be trained in the Olympia way, in the way that Olympia police are expected to act.”

The first group of Olympia officers already has received the training and will be training the rest of the department by the end of the year, Roberts said. Charlotte Petty, a Black Alliance co-founder, observed the training.

“We’ll be far from perfect, but this puts us in a place where we’re always working on changing our culture,” Roberts said.

Selby praised Roberts for the way he handled the shooting. She said the city and the Police Department are healing, and that’s due in large part to Roberts.

“This was a tragic event, it’s not an everyday occurrence in Olympia,” Selby said. “Considering that, I think we handled this better than many other cities, and I think that’s due to Chief Roberts’ leadership.”

Officer Paul Evers, president of the Olympia Police Guild, released a statement to The Olympian, saying Olympia officers are committed to building relationships with the community and providing the best service possible.

“As officers for the Olympia Police Department, it is our duty and honor to serve our community. It is very important to our officers that we work with all of the Olympia community to build and maintain relationships. Like many healthy relationships, we will experience both success and challenges along the way,” Evers wrote.

“Part of our duties also include the responsibility to respond to situations that require enforcement. Sometimes those we serve make decisions, for a myriad of reasons, which place others in jeopardy. We are committed to providing the best service possible in dealing with these situations to keep our community safe.”

“It is important to remember our officers also have a right to protect themselves. It may not appear pleasant and sometimes hard to accept. However, the officers of the Olympia Police Department remain committed to your protection and service with the same level of pride and integrity we have always provided.”

It is important to remember our officers also have a right to protect themselves. It may not appear pleasant and sometimes hard to accept. However, the officers of the Olympia Police Department remain committed to your protection and service with the same level of pride and integrity we have always provided.

Paul Evers, Olympia Police Guild president

The chief said he’s not surprised at how the Olympia community responded to the shooting. Olympia is a small city with a low rate of violent crime, so people tend to react when something violent does happen.

And some people in Olympia have formed opinions of police based on what they’ve experienced in other cities, Roberts said.

“There are going to be cop haters, there just are,” Roberts said. “And there are going to be cop lovers. And then there’s everyone else.”

A social movement

In the weeks and months following the shooting, the names Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin have become synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement in Olympia.

They’ve been the starting point for downtown protests, speeches before the Olympia City Council, bills in the Legislature and the creation of the Black Alliance of Thurston County.

“For months, I didn’t even know that was going on,” Crystal Chaplin said. “I wouldn’t even turn on the TV. I just ignored it.”

“I only just started looking and I was like, wow, this is nice. It was really nice to see the community coming together and supporting us,” she said.

Johnson said that many in the local black community have long known that there is a problem with systemic racism in Thurston County. She said black people are underrepresented in government and other positions of power — but no one was doing anything about it.

“If these two young men had not been shot, I’m not sure we would have ever had this movement,” Johnson said. “I think people had lost hope, they had given up thinking that things were going to change.”

The group formed last July, meeting for the first time in the home of longtime residents Thelma and Nat Jackson. Initially, the goal was to meet with Roberts and discuss institutional racism in the community and in the Police Department.

But at that first meeting, Johnson said, it became clear that they needed to do more.

We’re a group of blessed black people. We hit the earth at the right time to earn status, position and power. But this generation will never see that power, that status unless we stand up and do something.

Karen Johnson, Black Alliance of Thurston County co-founder

“We’re a group of blessed black people,” Johnson said. “We hit the earth at the right time to earn status, position and power. But this generation will never see that power, that status, unless we stand up and do something.”

One of the main goals put forward by the Black Alliance was to change Washington’s deadly force statute. In Washington, police officers can’t be convicted of using unnecessary force unless a prosecutor can prove that they acted with malice.

According to an Amnesty International report, Washington is the only state that requires prosecutors to meet this standard to convict a police officer in a deadly force case.

One of four Black Alliance-supported bills introduced during the 2016 legislative session made it to Gov. Jay Inslee’s desk. He signed it into law, creating a task force that will study Washington’s deadly force law and recommend best practices for community policing.

The task force will meet throughout 2016 and make their recommendations at the end of the year.

“This will be very interesting,” Johnson said. “I predict that there will be a better understanding of the issue, what the issue is, and some kind of skeletal approach about how to address the issue.”

She doesn’t plan to leave it there. The Black Alliance will continue to push for changes to the deadly force statute, and Johnson is making a bid for a 22nd District House seat in the November election.

“Everything ties back to that law,” Johnson said. “We can’t improve community policing without that changing.”

Washington is the only state that requires prosecutors to prove that police officers acted with malice in order to convict them in a deadly force case, according to Amnesty International.

While Johnson and other black leaders turned to legislation in the wake of the shooting, another group took to the streets on several occasions, stationing themselves outside of the prosecutor’s office at the Thurston County Courthouse and even chaining themselves to the fence at Tunheim’s house.

Two people were arrested at the courthouse, and another three were arrested at Tunheim’s home.

Gonzales, one of the people arrested at the courthouse, said the arrest was well worth it. She said she was sentenced to probation.

Gonzales said that hundreds of people have been involved in various protests — many are from The Evergreen State College, where Gonzales is a student. But the group’s reach extends into the greater Olympia community, she said, and participants are involved in several of other local movements.

“We’re very diverse, and there’s a lot of solidarity,” Gonzales said. “A lot of the time, the people organizing for police accountability are organizing for $15 an hour (minimum wages), or organizing for housing justice, or a variety of different things. It’s about building people power and holding each other up.”

The group has been organizing in pursuit of two goals: to have the charges against Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin dropped, and to have Donald fired.

“This was a devastating act of violence on two members of our community,” Gonzales said. “But the things I’ve seen put forward as, ‘this is change in our community’ are really just the bare minimum.”

Moving forward

Andre Thompson (left) and Bryson Chaplin appear before Superior Court Judge Gary Tabor during their Sept. 22, 2015, arraignment in connection with a May 2015 shoplifting incident and their subsequent shooting by Olympia Police officer Ryan Donald. Both entered not guilty pleas and were represented Tuesday by attorneys George Trejo (center) and Daryl Rodrigues, director of the Office of Assigned Counsel (not pictured). Steve Bloom sbloom@theolympian

The Thompson-Chaplin family would love to move forward, put the May 21, 2015, shooting behind them, Crystal Chaplin said. But one very real reminder of last year’s events looms in front of them: the criminal trial.

Both men are scheduled to stand trial Aug. 15. They each face two counts of second-degree assault because of their alleged actions against Donald. Bryson Chaplin also faces one count of third-degree assault for an alleged assault on a Safeway employee.

Crystal Chaplin said her biggest fear is that her sons won’t get a fair trial, but she prays they will.

“Sometimes I do worry that they won’t get fair treatment,” Crystal Chaplin said. “All I can do is pray that justice will be served, and that the charges will be dropped, and that we can move on with our lives.”

Crystal Chaplin declined to talk about the possibility of a civil lawsuit.

She said the city of Olympia has treated her sons unfairly by failing to fire Donald. On April 21, she addressed the City Council.

“I just wanted them to hear me, I just wanted them to see my face,” Crystal Chaplin said. “This needs to stop, this officer needs to be off the streets.”

Ultimately, Crystal Chaplin hopes to move her family out of Olympia, back to Rhode Island. She said that throughout the past year, she has been craving the support of her home community, which includes her extended family.

The love she felt for Thurston County and its natural beauty has dried up. Now, she said that she and her sons are afraid to leave their homes, worried they’ll encounter Donald or another Olympia police officer.

“It’s kind of scary now,” Crystal Chaplin said. “You have to look behind you, watch your back since this happened. Especially knowing that this officer is still on the force. It’s kind of a scary thing to go out of the house sometimes. There are people watching us.”

Once they’re back in Rhode Island, Crystal Chaplin said she expects her sons will enroll in school. She thinks they’ll both pursue the arts — Andre Thompson enjoys drawing and tattooing, while Bryson Chaplin is more musical and enjoys singing.

“They’re not thugs like everyone was saying,” Crystal Chaplin said. “They’re artists, they’re soft-spoken, they’re nice guys.”

Amelia Dickson: 360-754-5445, @Amelia_Oly