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How an ex-Philly cop made it his mission to expose police shootings of Black people

A former Philadelphia Police officer and founder of the nonprofit Total Justice, Terence Jones has become a one-man army set on investigating unjustified police shootings of Black people.

Terence Jones, a former Philadelphia police officer, introduces the wife and son of Lymond Moses and speaks to press about Moses' fatal shooting by New Castle County police at a protest on Feb. 5.
Terence Jones, a former Philadelphia police officer, introduces the wife and son of Lymond Moses and speaks to press about Moses' fatal shooting by New Castle County police at a protest on Feb. 5.Read moreTYGER WILLIAMS / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

On a recent Saturday morning, Terence Jones paced a dead-end street in a public-housing complex in Wilmington as if coaxing answers from the wind whipping by. He dragged a tape measure across the street, noting its dimensions. He stooped to examine each loop of orange spray paint on the pavement. He scrutinized video on his phone from TV news reports on a police shooting of an unarmed Black man, including footage of a Nissan Altima riddled with bullet holes. Then, he videotaped an identical Nissan trying to drive the route that police had described, and finding it physically impossible.

For Jones, the facts all added up to one conclusion: “This shooting of Lymond Moses, it’s a false narrative,” he said. “Lymond Moses was murdered.”

Moses’ fatal shooting by two New Castle County, Del., police officers on Jan. 13 is still under investigation, according to the department. But, the NCCPD’s initial news release summarized the official account: Officers were investigating a “suspicious vehicle” when it “took off and fled down a dead-end road. The vehicle then made a U-turn and drove at a high rate of speed directly at the officers.”

That didn’t ring true to Moses’ family — which is why they called Jones.

A former Philadelphia police officer, Jones is the founder of Total Justice, a nonprofit organization that for the moment consists of Jones, operating alone and unfunded.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his own past in law enforcement — a sometimes controversial history — Jones has become a one-man army fighting to expose police shootings of Black men. He handled an independent investigation into the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore, alleged a cover-up in the police shooting of Radazz Hearns in Trenton, and organized support for Trent Brewer Jr., one of a string of people attacked by Atlantic City police dogs.

According to Jones and those he has helped, his combination of on-the-ground investigation and in-your-face grandstanding has been effective in getting answers and, in some cases, justice.

The shooting of Moses is his latest case, and one he said follows a familiar pattern of staging the scene to cover up an unwarranted shooting. Jones believes eyewitness accounts tell the true story. One neighbor told Fox 29 she heard a crash, looked out her window to see police ordering Moses out of the stopped car — “but I’m like, how could he get out if all his airbags are deployed?” — and then heard about five gunshots. (She did not respond to messages this week.)

New Castle County’s police chief, Col. Vaughn Bond Jr., declined an interview request, saying the investigation is ongoing.

Lashonnah Nix, Moses’ sister, lives feet from where he was shot, and struggles with the daily pain of seeing those spray-painted crime-scene markers on the street. She said her family wants answers.

“I’ve seen the story of what the police said on the news, but we don’t agree with that. We don’t believe it. It doesn’t make sense.”

‘He shed a whole lot of light’

This corner of Wilmington might seem an odd destination for Jones, who lives in rural southern New Jersey and served 10 years with the Philadelphia Police Department in the 1990s.

He describes himself as a “highly decorated” officer who set records for arrests and who served on demanding elite units. He said he reluctantly left the department because of an on-the-job injury.

He also has firsthand experience with police shootings, having shot two men during his time on the force.

He shot and paralyzed one man, Carlos McLeod, while responding to a convenience-store robbery in 1992. McLeod told investigators he was trying to help the store clerk; Jones told them McLeod had pointed a gun at him. In the end, an internal investigation found Jones acted within departmental guidelines — but McLeod won a civil settlement of $2.2 million.

The other man, 20-year-old Thomas Webb, was killed when Jones, who was off duty, believed Webb was stealing his car in 1998. Then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham declined to file charges, finding the shooting “was unintentional, during a struggle over the [officer’s] gun.”

But Webb’s family saw the outcome as a cruel injustice. And in the years since, Webb’s younger brother, Brenton Webb, has watched Jones’ organizing efforts in the media with a measure of disgust.

“He’s a ... hypocrite,” he said. “He did exactly what he’s trying to prosecute. He is that person. Whether it’s money-motivated or out of guilt, I don’t know.”

Jones, 57, noted he was cleared of wrongdoing. He said his past does inform his work, though: He wants all police who shoot civilians to undergo the same scrutiny he did. “They took it to the grand jury. They did a fair and impartial investigation.”

He self-funds his work, which takes him all over the country to investigate questionable shootings. He said all of what he does is as a volunteer — as he puts it, a “concerned citizen.”

He has been pushing for racial justice for more than a decade, taking a vocal approach that has rankled some officials.

That fire was sparked in 2007 and 2008, when he found himself involved in back-to-back court cases. In the first, he was slated to testify against a man who assailed him in a racist road-rage attack. The defendant, previously convicted in a cross-burning incident, pleaded guilty to two counts of bias intimidation.

In the second case, Jones was the defendant, accused by Woolwich Township police of filing a false report, after he said an officer racially profiled him, tailed him for five miles, pulled him over without cause, and illegally searched his car without a warrant. But he was acquitted, and a judge called the case “chilling,” adding that it was the police officer, not Jones, who ought to have been investigated. He ended up suing the department and settling out of court.

After that, he decided: “I’m going to spend the rest of my life fighting for justice so that no other Black man would go through what I went through.”

Since then, Jones has conducted numerous independent investigations, assisting various law firms, as well as chapters of the NAACP, at the request of shooting victims or their families.

“I only get involved in cases if someone gives me a call,” he said.

His goal is to create a force to be reckoned with in Total Justice, which is based in Delaware, where he sees grave concerns about police shootings of unarmed Black people. By his count, there have been close to 60 shootings by police since 2005, and no officer has ever been criminally charged.

In 2019, he assisted the family of Yahim Harris, a teen who was shot by police four times as they chased him in connection with a carjacking in Wilmington. Harris survived, and faced criminal charges.

“Terence came and did an investigation and found out that there was lot covered up in his shooting,” Harris’ mother, Jonda Brown, said. “He found out what actually took place that day.”

After it was revealed that the officer who shot Harris had secretly exchanged the barrel of his service weapon, prosecutors dropped charges against Harris, the Delaware News Journal reported. The Delaware Department of Justice — which had found that the police response was appropriate — now has an open investigation into the officer, who is no longer with the department, a spokesperson said.

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki, through his deputy chief of staff, John Rago, said in a statement that the officers’ response to the violent carjacking was “reasonable and justified.” Now that Harris has filed a civil lawsuit, Rago added, “we look forward to fully refuting the baseless allegations as this matter proceeds to court, and look forward to setting the record straight.”

Jones is also advocating for another Delaware man, Jabri Hunter, 22, who was passed out in a parked car on the roadside in Wilmington until police surrounded the car and ended up shooting him on April 12, 2020. Hunter, too, survived. He remains incarcerated on drug and gun charges — which Jones calls “the usual how you do a Black man when you want to cover up a shooting.”

In his investigation, Jones got a neighbor to turn over doorbell camera footage — but according to Jones, there was a 12-minute gap at the time of the shooting. Jones believes police tampered with the video and crime scene.

Jabri’s mother, Classy Hunter, has been frustrated by the official silence, as her son has remained in jail, where he caught COVID-19. “It’s been a year since my son was shot and I have no answers as to what happened, why he was shot. I’m just left with this blank.” For her, Jones has been a crucial resource. “He shed a whole lot of light” on the situation, she said.

Wilmington and Delaware Department of Justice representatives declined to comment because the investigation into Hunter’s shooting is open.

For the NAACP in Delaware, Jones’ assistance has empowered it to challenge the official narrative.

“Terence is an amazing investigator. When we take this to legislators, to the police, we need to have that investigation and that research,“ said Coby Owens, a Delaware civil rights organizer. “Black people are being killed at an astonishing rate. We need for police to view us as civilians.”

As Owens spoke, a surveillance drone buzzed overhead, an armored truck rumbled by, and a half-dozen police SUVs, lights flashing, stood sentry at the New Castle County Police headquarters.

It was a few weeks after Moses’ death, and Jones had organized a small protest outside the building, about 40 minutes southwest of Philadelphia.

The protest was designed to pressure the department to shed light on the incident. Moses’ wife, parents, and sisters gathered with NAACP leadership. A niece carried a plaintive sign reading, “Why y’all kill him?”

For Jones, this is part of a multipronged initiative that includes pursuing his independent investigation and helping the family request information including, in order of urgency, the names of the officers who shot Moses, their body camera footage, the recording of the 911 call that prompted police to investigate, and the full autopsy report. After a few weeks, they succeeded in getting Moses’ death certificate, which confirmed he was fatally shot in the head.

Jones believes his investigation shows another case where police tampered with the crime scene and falsified a story about aggressive driving to justify a needless killing.

“This is something I never would have expected, them killing my son,” said Rozzlie Moses. Though her son had drug convictions in his past, his family said he had recently held restaurant and construction jobs. “He harmed no one,” his mother said.

Moses’ family described him as a devoted father, son, and brother, who routinely stopped by to visit his mother and sister when he had free time. He was shot just outside their apartment. They don’t believe that he was doing anything suspicious, or illegal. He had a habit of sitting in his car watching YouTube videos; they figure he fell asleep doing so, exhausted from caring for his 3-month-old baby.

Lakeisha Nix, one of Moses’ sisters, said talking through what happened with his children has been devastating. “They are all so sad like, ‘Why did they have to kill my dad?’”

Her nephew, who is 8, volunteered to help with the Islamic burial rituals, including helping dig a grave. “He was very courageous, doing stuff we know his dad would want him to do.”