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Three years after a fatal police shooting in Philadelphia, glimpses of change

Ryan Pownall, an ex-Philly cop, was charged in 2018 with murdering David Jones. Fallout from that case could still be felt during last week’s George Floyd protests.

David Jones (right), shown in an undated family photo, was shot in the back and killed by Officer Ryan Pownall in 2017.
David Jones (right), shown in an undated family photo, was shot in the back and killed by Officer Ryan Pownall in 2017.Read moreFamily photo

The circumstances of the case were familiar, a kind of crime scene déjà vu. A confrontation in North Philadelphia had left a black man dead, and a white police officer under the microscope. There was video footage and forensic evidence that seemed damning. Protesters took to the streets, howling for justice.

What would happen next?

That question trailed city officials like a storm cloud in the weeks and months after Officer Ryan Pownall shot a 30-year-old named David Jones twice in the back on June 8, 2017. Pownall had stopped Jones for riding a dirt bike on a city street, which is illegal.

It marked the second time in Pownall’s career that he had shot a man in the back as he ran from police.

History suggested that he wouldn’t be subjected to more than a desk duty assignment and an Internal Affairs investigation for killing Jones; a Philadelphia police officer hadn’t faced criminal charges for an on-duty shooting in two decades.

But local leaders had talked a good game publicly about the importance of holding police accountable in the era of Black Lives Matter. Here was a decisive test — and its fallout could still be felt last week, amid a series of chaotic and sometimes violent clashes between officers and demonstrators who marched throughout the city to protest the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

In September 2017, then-Police Commissioner Richard Ross fired Pownall, who had been transporting a father and two children to the Special Victims Unit for an interview when he spotted Jones riding a dirt bike on the 4200 block of Whitaker Avenue.

The two men tussled over a gun that Pownall said he found in Jones’ waistband, but footage captured by a nearby surveillance camera showed that Jones had dropped the weapon, and was more than 10 feet away, when Pownall began firing.

“It’s not even a question of what someone’s perception was vs. another’s," Ross said at the time. "I saw it. The shooting investigators saw it. And that’s where it starts and stops.”

» READ MORE: Peaceful, smaller protests take place across the region on Sunday; Rizzo mural is gone from the Italian Market

A year later, District Attorney Larry Krasner announced that a grand jury had determined Pownall should be charged with murder and reckless endangerment. (A judge later downgraded the lead charge to third-degree murder.)

The city also reached a $1 million settlement with Jones’ family to avoid a potential lawsuit.

This was a turning point in how the city addressed complaints about police violence. Discussions about whether to prosecute a cop could no longer be deliberated in secret for years and years, especially not with so many encounters now being captured by camera footage that can be shared instantly across social media.

The case also deepened the enmity between the D.A.'s Office and the Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 5. The union’s president, John McNesby, blew off the charges against Pownall as a “meritless indictment,” and contended Krasner has “an anti-law enforcement agenda.”

Outside the political arena, the union was locked in a battle for public sentiment with activists who wanted justice for Jones.

Isaac Gardner, a lifelong Philadelphia resident, learned about Jones’ death after seeing some footage of his final moments play out on a TV news segment. Gardner posted the clip on his Facebook page, and was soon joined by other activists who staged protests strategically — interrupting a City Council session, as well as public appearances made by Mayor Jim Kenney and former Gov. Ed Rendell.

Gardner and a few others even protested in front of Pownall’s house, in Northeast Philadelphia, where they were met by a large contingent of police officers and some of Pownall’s neighbors.

“The city was really sick of us,” Gardner said.

But he noted that major developments, such as Pownall’s firing, seemed to follow closely on the heels of actions like the demonstration in the ex-cop’s neighborhood.

“When he was fired, I felt good,” Gardner said. “When I found out he’d been arrested, I’m not even going to lie, I cried.”

The union, in turn, convened a “Back the Blue” rally at its headquarters in the Far Northeast, and staged a fund-raiser for Pownall; some officers wore “Pownall, we have your back” T-shirts to the former officer’s first court appearance in 2018.

Pownall’s case is at a standstill.

In January, a Common Pleas Court judge agreed to postpone the start of his trial while the D.A.'s Office waits to learn whether an appeals court ruling will grant a prosecutor’s motion to alter jury instructions about when officers are permitted to use deadly force. Pownall’s lawyers have insisted he was legally justified in firing at Jones.

» READ MORE: Murder trial for ex-Philly cop Ryan Pownall delayed indefinitely

Echoes of his case, however, could be heard last week.

Evan Gorski, a 21-year-old Temple University student, was arrested on June 1 during a protest near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. The student’s lawyer said he’d been told by court personnel that Gorski had knocked a police officer off a bicycle, causing the officer to break his hand.

But video footage that soon found its way to YouTube and Twitter told a wildly different tale. Gorski hadn’t knocked down any cops. Instead, he’d been struck in the head with a baton wielded by a commander with a checkered history: Inspector Joseph Bologna.

The D.A.'s Office declined to press charges against Gorski, and Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw pledged to conduct a thorough Internal Affairs investigation.

On Friday, Krasner filed felony assault charges against Bologna. In a statement, he referenced the timeworn idea of accountability, but emphasized a need for more urgency.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia Police Inspector Joseph Bologna will face assault charges in the beating of a Temple student at a protest

“We are trying to be fair,” Krasner said. “Accountability has to be equal, and this moment demands a swift and evenhanded response to violent and criminal acts.”

McNesby praised Bologna as a decorated and respected leader, and complained that Krasner was denying Bologna the same rights that protesters enjoyed.

There were some other familiar refrains.

One officer started a GoFundMe for Bologna, which collected more than $18,400 as of Sunday night. And on Twitter, the FOP announced that it would begin raising money for Bologna this week, too, by selling T-shirts for $20 a pop at its headquarters.

The shirts feature the union’s logo, and a new slogan in large black, blue and white letters: Bologna Strong.