A Philadelphia police officer who fatally shot a fleeing suspect in the back during a routine traffic stop has been suspended and will be fired for violating multiple departmental policies, police Commissioner Richard Ross announced Thursday.
Officer Ryan Pownall remains under investigation by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office, which took over the case last month, to determine whether he broke any laws when he shot David Jones, 30, three times in the back on June 8 in North Philadelphia.
“Police work is a very difficult occupation. It is arguably one of the most dangerous professions in this country. We ask police officers to deal with dangerous situations that most people can neither appreciate nor understand,” Ross said. “However, this does not relieve us of our responsibility to adhere to our policies and our training. It does not mean that we shouldn’t be held accountable for our actions.”
Pownall was taking a family to the nearby special victims unit when he spotted Jones on a dirt bike and decided to stop him near Whitaker and Hunting Park avenues, according to witnesses and police accounts. But after Pownall got out of his cruiser to confront the biker, he discovered Jones had a gun tucked in his waistband, and a scuffle broke out. Within seconds, Jones ditched his bike and gun, and he ran. Pownall shot him three times, with the third shot fired at a distance of about 35 feet, Ross said.
Pownall failed to notify police radio of the traffic stop or call for backup, Ross said.
“Sadly, two parallel lanes of poor judgment crossed on that evening,” Ross said. “Officer Pownall used poor judgment when he chose to make a vehicle stop for a motor vehicle violation with civilians in his car. He also used poor judgment by not availing himself of cover and concealment after Jones broke away from him during their struggle.
“Instead, he elected to take aim and fire two shots at Jones while he was running away. All this occurred during rush hour,” Ross said. “And Jones also used poor judgment as well when he carried a gun illegally, rode a motorcycle that is illegal to ride on city streets, and refused to comply with Pownall’s orders.”
Ross said Pownall told investigators he believed Jones was armed throughout their encounter. Partly for that reason, Ross said, Pownall’s first shot at Jones was justified. But the second two weren’t, he said, adding that officers must continually reassess whether a suspect poses an immediate danger before resorting to deadly force.
Shooting suspects in the back isn’t always wrong, Ross added, citing gunman Nicholas Green. Green fired at least 51 shots — killing a woman and wounding several others, including a Philadelphia police sergeant and a University of Pennsylvania police officer — during a September 2016 shooting rampage in West Philadelphia that ended only after officers chased him into an alley and shot him to death.
A rare move for department
Terminating an officer for an on-duty shooting is so unusual in Philadelphia that Ross, who insisted it wasn’t unprecedented, still couldn’t name a single case during his morning news conference at police headquarters. A police spokeswoman later cited the firing of Cyrus Mann, a city officer involved in three separate on-duty shootings, including one fatality. Mann lost his job in 2015 for the fatality — but got it back last year through arbitration.
“It’s unusual for a police officer to be dismissed over an on-duty shooting in Philadelphia — and nationwide — although they’re certainly getting more attention, as a result of a lot of high-profile, suspicious shootings captured on video and with numerous witnesses,” said attorney Alan Yatvin, a police reformer. “This is a move in the right direction, that they are looking at these incidents critically and taking the appropriate steps.”
Civil rights attorney David Rudovsky, another police reformer, agreed: “It is very uncommon. I would congratulate the police commissioner on this decision. I think it’s the right one … Of course, the officer can now appeal that dismissal through an arbitration process in Pennsylvania that unfortunately over the years has proved to be an effective way of undoing proper discipline.
“There are scores of officers who have been disciplined by the department, either with suspensions or dismissals, for in some cases very egregious misconduct, who have been placed back on the force as a result of arbitration.”
Still, Jones’ family and supporters applauded the commissioner for firing Pownall. but they said they’ll continue protesting until Attorney General Josh Shapiro criminally charges Pownall.
“This is good news,” his mother, Doretha Crosby, said. “Just half of the work is done. We want them to do the rest of the job. We want the attorney general to do his job and arrest this guy. I want this cop arrested for murder. I’m just waiting patiently.”
Isaiah Gardner, a Jones family spokesman, agreed: “Josh Shapiro, here’s your wake-up call. We’re coming. So you better make the right decision. You know what you got to do. He didn’t get fired for nothing. He got fired for a reason. So now the next step is to charge him … We won’t stop ‘til we get it. We want justice.”
Joe Grace, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said only, “The investigation is ongoing.”
Fraternal Order of Police President John McNesby, whose union represents the city’s 6,400 officers, couldn’t be reached for comment.
Jones was a truck driver who had just gotten married four months before he died, his mother said.
He was one of nine men shot by Philadelphia officers so far this year, according to police data. Four died. Such shootings have dropped since 2015, when federal Department of Justice officials issued a lengthy report recommending reforms to reduce Philly officers’ use of deadly force, which previously had been rising.