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St. Petersburg officer justified in shooting armed teen, task force says

Christopher Deon Tonsel, 17, appeared to be targeting the officer, according to the review. The teen’s mother says body camera video doesn’t support that.
K9 Officer Leighton Williams confronts domestic battery suspect Christopher Tonsel behind a home in St. Petersburg in this image from body camera footage. A review determined Tonsel was armed and Williams was justified in shooting him.
K9 Officer Leighton Williams confronts domestic battery suspect Christopher Tonsel behind a home in St. Petersburg in this image from body camera footage. A review determined Tonsel was armed and Williams was justified in shooting him. [ The Pinellas County Use of Deadly Force Investigative Taskforce ]
Published Jan. 5|Updated Jan. 5

ST. PETERSBURG — A police officer was justified in shooting and wounding a 17-year-old boy while trying to arrest him for a domestic battery because the teen was armed with a handgun and appeared to be targeting the officer, a task force has concluded.

The shooting has drawn protests, and a rally is planned 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Friday at St. Petersburg Police Department headquarters. The teen’s mother said an edited version of body camera footage released by police does not support findings in the task force report that the officer was in danger.

The shooting occurred Oct. 20 as police were investigating a domestic battery at Wildwood Recreation Center, 1000 28th St. S, according to the report released publicly on Wednesday by the Pinellas County Use of Deadly Force Investigative Taskforce.

Christopher Deon Tonsel met with a female outside the center and injured her during an argument before stealing her cell phone and $90, the victim told police. Tonsel, whom she had been dating off and on, demanded her phone and found photos of her there with another male, she told police.

The report gives this account of what followed:

Police tracked Tonsel to the 2500 block of 13th Ave. S, and K9 Officer Leighton Williams spotted him in an alley. Williams followed Tonsel in his patrol car and Tonsel fled behind a house. Williams followed with his dog and spotted Tonsel, noticing the black handle of a gun in Tonsel’s right pocket.

Tonsel reached for the gun, Williams ordered him to “put the gun down,” and Tonsel refused.

“Officer Williams saw the gun in Tonsel’s right hand as he reached across his body with his left hand, repeatedly glancing back toward Officer Williams as if acquiring a target,” the report says.

Tonsel appeared to pull out the firearm and turn toward Williams. Williams, fearing for his life, fired one round, striking Tonsel in the abdomen.

Body camera footage is consistent with Williams’ account, the report said. Police released a clip from the footage as well as cellphone video of the domestic battery, recorded by a witness.

Tonsel received what were believed to be life-threatening injuries but recovered from his wounds. He was discharged from a hospital Nov. 24 and charged as an adult with aggravated assault on a law enforcement officer, carrying a concealed firearm and possession of a firearm by an individual under 18.

The task force report includes a list of 20 incidents described as “Tonsel’s Criminal History and Police Contacts.” They consist largely of thefts in which he is described as a suspect and include a report from a relative that he was in possession of a gun and an incident where he was shot in the leg while sitting on a porch.

Tonsel’s mother, Catherine Jones, questioned how Officer Williams could have feared for his life. ”You got a dog, a gun and a taser.”

The body camera footage released Wednesday shows her son was terrified but not a threat, Jones said. ”There’s no way I see him pointing the gun.”

She said Tonsel is still suffering from his wounds and isn’t receiving all his medication as he is held in solitary confinement at the Pinellas County Jail.

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Police released a 40-second portion of the body camera video because of community calls for transparency in the shooting, said spokesperson Yolanda Fernandez.

Fernandez did not know how long the entire video runs but said a portion showing Tonsel fall after being shot was removed to avoid distressing family members. Another portion was slowed down to make clear that a gun was falling from Tonsel’s hands, she said.

The task force findings were sent in a Dec. 16 letter from Sheriff Bob Gualtieri to police Chief Anthony Halloway. The task force was created in 2020 to ensure that outside investigators review use of force incidents involving local law enforcement agencies.


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