Activists demand answers in Philadelphia police slaying of dirt biker

 Black Lives Matter activist Asa Khalif (right) confronts Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis (center) and Deputy Managing Director Brian Abernathy at their office to demand that the city investigate the fatal police shooting of David Jones on June 8. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Black Lives Matter activist Asa Khalif (right) confronts Managing Director Michael DiBerardinis (center) and Deputy Managing Director Brian Abernathy at their office to demand that the city investigate the fatal police shooting of David Jones on June 8. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

It’s been more than five weeks since a Philadelphia police officer stopped a dirt biker in North Philly and shot him to death, in the back, as he ran away.

But the biker’s family say they still have more questions than answers about how a routine traffic stop turned fatal — especially why the civilian-led, watchdog Police Advisory Commission hasn’t yet launched an investigation into David Jones’ death, which was caught by a nearby diner’s surveillance cameras.

On Monday, a small group of activists confronted several city leaders during a lunchtime sit-in, demanding that Officer Ryan Pownall be fired for shooting Jones, 30, three times in the back on June 8.

“Black and brown people are under attack by law enforcement and agencies under the mayor (Jim Kenney) have been silent. And your silence is violence!” said Asa Khalif, an organizer with Black Lives Matter’s Philadelphia chapter. “Black and brown people are murdered by law enforcement, and every agency in this city has been silent. It’s shameful and unacceptable!”

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Pressing for transparency, answers

Khalif, along with Jones family spokesman Isaac Gardner, blogger Chris Norris, and three activists from March on Harrisburg, confronted city managing director Michael DiBerardinis and first deputy managing director Brian Abernathy in their 14th-floor offices at the Municipal Services Building.

“We want transparency. We want answers,” Khalif said. “Five weeks (ago), a man was shot in the back, and we have heard nothing from these government officials.”

To DiBerardinis, Khalif shouted: “Is it standard police practice to shoot a suspect, when they’re fleeing, in the back?”

“We came down here to ask for justice for the Jones family,” said Gardner. “A rogue officer who wasn’t even in his district stopped him and killed him. The family’s in turmoil right now. The family wants answers. They want justice. They want the officer locked up, convicted and put away in prison, just like any other murderer.”

DiBerardinis agreed to review the surveillance video of the shooting, get an update on the investigation, and get back in touch with Khalif, Gardner and others.

“I’m not suggesting that your outrage is not warranted,” DiBerardinis said. “What I’m saying is: I cannot and do not have the authority or the information, that’s based on an ongoing and serious investigation of the shooting, to comment on the details and the resolution and the judgment of this situation.”

With DiBerardinis’ promise to get them answers, the activists left after a 20-minute protest, chanting: “Justice for David Jones! Say his name! David Jones!”

The protest was one of several held since Pownall, a 12-year veteran assigned to the 15th police district in Mayfair, stopped Jones as he rode a dirt bike at Whitaker and Hunting Park avenues. It’s illegal to ride dirt bikes or ATVs on city streets in Philadelphia, but Pownall was out of his assigned district and tasked with transporting a family to the nearby Special Victims Unit (SVU) for an unrelated kidnapping case when he detoured to stop Jones.

The police version of what happened goes like this: Pownall got out of his SUV to talk to Jones, but saw him holding his waistband. Pownall patted Jones down and felt a firearm, which prompted him to pull his own gun while telling Jones not to touch his weapon. A struggle erupted when Jones tried to pull out his gun, and Pownall pulled the trigger. The trigger jammed, so Jones ran — but Pownall fired at Jones three times after clearing the unfired round from his gun.

But that’s not exactly how one witness remembers it.

Another version of events

Terrance, 33, who asked that his last name be withheld, was riding in Pownall’s back seat with his 9-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter. Just hours earlier, Terrance’s son “Peanut” had disappeared from their Frankford home after taking the garbage out — only to return, “dizzy and disoriented,” telling his father that strangers in a white sedan had snatched him from the street. Peanut escaped when he broke free as the men tried to take him into an unknown house, the boy told his father, who alerted police. Pownall responded, and took Peanut and his father on an unsuccessful search for the kidnappers’ car and house.

Afterward, his sergeant directed him to take them to SVU to officially make their statements.

So Terrance was surprised when Pownall, after spotting Jones at a traffic light, suddenly veered into oncoming traffic to chase the dirt-biker — especially because another police SUV nearby ignored Jones, and police policy prohibits officers from chasing dirt-bikers.

After Pownall blocked Jones with his SUV, the officer scrambled outside and confronted the dirt biker.

“He don’t ask him his name, don’t ask him if he has credentials to carry a firearm, don’t ask him if he has any weapons, bench warrants, nothing. First thing he says when he pulls up on him, screeeeech!, ‘I’m taking your shit!’” Terrance said.

Police policy allows officers to confiscate dirt bikes and ATVs when people ride them illegally in the street. But Terrance was still confused, considering Pownall’s SUV already was pretty full.

“What does that mean?” Terrance said. “I assume, he’s talking about the dirt bike. But I don’t know how he gonna do that when he’s got me and my kids in the truck … He just said: ‘I’m taking your shit, bud!’”

Terrance said he saw no handgun, at that point.

Still, Pownall put his hands on Jones, and the pair began “tussling and wrestling,” said Terrance, who watched, helpless in the locked back seat of Pownall’s SUV, as they grappled just two feet away from him.

“Mr. Jones is breaking Officer Pownall’s grip. So Mr. Jones looks at me, not no quick glance. He looks at me for a good 5, 6 seconds. I said: ‘Don’t do it, bruh! Don’t do it!’ Whatever is gonna make this man hurt you or potentially kill you, don’t do it, bruh!” Terrance remembered.

Jones broke free, but Pownall pulled out a stun gun and shocked him, Terrance said.

“You could hear the cracklin’ — sounds like electrical wire,” Terrance said. “Mr. Jones go down, but he don’t go all the way down, he just like buckles.”

Pownall threw the stun gun down, Terrance said, and then pointed his gun at Jones.

“I jumped on my kids,” Terrance said, of trying to protect his kids from gunfire. “It done got real now.”

Of Pownall, Terrance said: “He shoots, boom, boom, boom! I get up, I look. Mr. Jones is laying on the sidewalk, kinda laying off the sidewalk on the street, he’s about 30 feet in back of the SUV. All (Pownall is) saying is: ‘He got a gun! He had a f**king gun!’”

But Jones wasn’t armed when he was running away, Terrance said.

He had dropped the handgun on the ground next to the SUV, Terrance said.

I said: ‘Well, the gun is over here. The gun is over here, next to the police SUV and the dirt bike.”

With Pownall’s SUV now part of an investigation scene, Terrance and his children sat for two hours in another police car there, before they were taken to South Philadelphia, where detectives questioned them for several hours about Jones’ shooting.

As for his son’s kidnapping case, Terrance said he has heard nothing further from detectives on that.

Two investigations ongoing

In the days after the shooting, Police Commissioner Richard Ross acknowledged that Pownall’s actions — especially shooting a suspect in the back — “gives me pause.”

Capt. Sekou Kinebrew said the shooting remains under investigation by both police internal affairs for any departmental violations, as well as a new Officer-Involved Shooting Investigation Unit, whose investigators will decide whether the officer’s actions broke any criminal laws.

Pownall remains on desk duty, as is standard policy in police-involved shootings, pending the investigations’ outcomes, Kinebrew said.

Jones’ death was the second time Pownall shot a fleeing suspect in the back, activists said. In a 2010 foot chase, Pownall and two other officers shot Carnell Williams-Carney in the back, leaving him a paraplegic. He had been armed, but ditched the gun as he fled. Williams-Carney filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit over the incident, but a jury sided with police, who said the officers were unaware he’d abandoned his gun.

Erica Atwood, the interim executive director of the Police Advisory Commission, couldn’t be reached for comment.

But a commission spokesman, Marcel Bassett, said the commission will wait until police investigators are finished and then review their findings.

Under previous leadership, the commission typically independently investigated police-involved shootings, instead of waiting for authorities to finish theirs.

Terrance didn’t attend Monday’s lunchtime protest. But he agreed Jones’ shooting warrants a deep look — and he feels Pownall deserves some sort of discipline.

“If (Jones) had shot back, and struck me or one of my kids — I’m married, I don’t hang around the street, I don’t club. What could you tell my wife if one of us had died at that moment, because you (Pownall) chose to be a hero?” Terrance said.

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