Updated 10:56 a.m.
District Attorney Larry Krasner filed homicide charges Tuesday against Ryan Pownall, a former Philadelphia police officer who fatally shot a man named David Jones in Juniata last year. The move marked the first time in nearly two decades that the top prosecutor has pursued a murder case against a city police officer, igniting what will likely become one of the year’s most contentious criminal proceedings.
Pownall’s charges are the result of a yearlong investigation by a grand jury. He was arraigned Tuesday night and is being held without bail.
The case represents a flashpoint between two polarized camps in the criminal justice arena.
Reform-minded groups immediately applauded Krasner’s decision to charge Pownall over the 2017 killing, which sparked dozens of protests and led Commissioner Richard Ross to take away the officer’s badge. Meanwhile, police union officials have called the charges “absurd” and vowed to fight tooth-and-nail on Pownall’s behalf — as well as to get him reinstated on the force.
It’s going to be a messy fight. Here’s what you need to know going forward.
What started this whole thing?
Pownall is accused of shooting and killing Jones during a traffic stop. Pownall fired on Jones as he ran away, after Jones had already tossed his firearm, according to the grand jury report released Tuesday.
The report paints a picture of an officer making a needless confrontation that escalated into fatal violence.
In June 2017, Pownall was transporting three witnesses for an unrelated case when he pulled over 30-year-old Jones for riding a dirt bike in Juniata Park. Upon frisking Jones, Pownall detected a gun and a struggle ensued, the report says, at which point Jones fled on foot.
The officer’s service weapon jammed upon his first attempt to fire. Pownall then fixed his gun and discharged three shots “for no reason” into the direction of street traffic, the report states, contradicting Pownall’s claim that he only fired once. Investigators later recovered Jones’ firearm near Pownall, 25 feet away from where the suspect collapsed. Video evidence later recovered from the scene showed that Jones was unarmed and that he never turned toward Pownall, or gestured in a threatening manner as he attempted to flee.
“Jones was no danger to anyone in his flight,” the grand jury report concludes. “His death was not necessary to secure his apprehension — an apprehension that would not have been necessary had Pownall not incited the confrontation.”
Why is this case such a big deal?
DA Krasner campaigned on a wave of promises to hold city officers accountable for allegations excessive force and criminal misconduct. Since taking office in January, his attorneys have filed charges in several cases against other officers — including a recently dismissed assault case against two ex-SEPTA Transit Police and an ongoing assault case against a former 24th District officer.
But in Philadelphia, as elsewhere in the country, it’s rare for prosecutors to seek such serious charges in a fatal police-involved shooting.
The last time a Philly cop faced homicide charges for an on-duty killing was in 1999, under then-DA Lynne Abraham. The officer, Christopher DiPasquale, was charged with killing an unarmed man during a traffic stop. That case would never make it to trial, however. Judges tossed it, and the city later settled with the victim’s family for $712,500 — at the time, one of the largest payouts in city history.
For police watchdogs, the case against Pownall isn’t necessarily about winning or losing in court, said attorney David Rudovsky, who has sued the city numerous times over police misconduct. Homicide cases against officers are among the most difficult for prosecutors to win, he says, as jurors often give police officers the benefit of reasonable doubt.
Instead, this case is about setting a precedent where evidence allows.
“It is important that cases involving strong evidence of criminal misconduct by officers be prosecuted,” Rudovsky told Billy Penn. “Some are successful and establishing accountability for police who violate the law is an important part of a larger movement for fair and democratic policing.”
Other lawyers agreed it marks an important step. “They went about it in the proper way through a grand jury,” said Riley Ross, a civil rights attorney who has represented police abuse victims. “Our system has no problem doing that for an everyday joe, and the same should apply to police officers.”
Why is the police union angry?
Following several Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of Jones’ death — including a heavily criticized demonstration outside Pownall’s family home in Northeast Philly — PPD Commissioner Ross took the officer’s badge away, citing policy violations and “poor judgment.” (The description of Pownall’s actions outlined in the grand jury report appear to contradict several of the department’s use-of-force edicts.)
But when criminal charges landed Tuesday, a large crowd showed up at the police union headquarters on Tuesday to speak on Pownall’s behalf.
Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 President John McNesby called the charges “an absurd disgrace.” He added that the charges will cause officers split-second decisions to “be second-guessed” — a concern echoed often when criminal charges have been brought against offers, including in the 1999 DiPasquale case.
Pownall’s attorney, Fortunato Perri Jr., said the officer was officer was legally justified in the shooting and vowed to exonerate the former officer. Based solely on the city’s history of criminally charging officers, those odds do stand in Pownall’s favor.
It is not unusual for an officer to have his badge taken away during a criminal investigation — and it is just as common that they’ll be reinstated to the force if they are acquitted, which is made possible under the city’s union arbitration agreement with the police.
What else you need to know
As in any case that becomes a criminal justice flashpoint, you’ll probably see a lot of allegations flying from both sides in the days to come.
Police supporters often point to Jones’ own criminal history — a “he’s no angel” defense that has been employed in high-profile cases, especially when a white officer guns down a black man. Jones, who is black, had previous felony convictions which barred him from legally possessing a firearm.
On the other hand, police watchdogs cite Pownall’s own questionable track record. The officer, who is white, shot another fleeing suspect in the back seven years prior to shooting Jones.
In the four years before he was dismissed from the force, Pownall also racked up 15 civilian complaints alleging a range of abuses, making him one of the top compliant receivers on the force, a recent news report found. The charges, which ranged from hurling racial epithets to the use of excessive force, were ruled largely unfounded by internal investigators and Pownall faced little discipline as a result.
Both Jones’ and Pownall’s families have been outspoken on their relatives’ behalfs.
But don’t expect much public comment from your local elected officials. More often than not, City Council members tend to stay away from police issues that could prove divisive among their base.
At the moment, the exception to that trend is Republican at-large Councilman Al Taubenberger, who was spotted on stage with the police union in support of Pownall.
Below is the full grand jury report on the incident.