On Jan. 22, 57-year-old Christopher Thompkins was shot and killed by Pittsburgh police responding to a burglary in his home. Thompkins was an African-American man, living in Larimer, a predominantly black neighborhood and the incident has sparked the usual racial tensions between the black community and police.
"My initial reaction was here we go again because there's been a narrative across our country that when black people call the police for help, they end up killed and it has happened many times," says Brandi Fisher, director of the Alliance for Police Accountability. "And sometimes or most times, it's because of that bias that some officers have who assume the black person is the criminal."
But there has been something different about this officer-involved shooting. Usually, Fisher struggles to find out information in the wake of a controversial police incident and can't get the police to return her calls. However, this time, the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police called her.
"I don't know how many cities can really say that when there's a police shooting, the police are reaching out to grassroots organizations that fight police brutality," says Fisher. "It was a testament to the relationship I think we have built and a testament to our work as well."
Officials are still sorting out the facts of the Jan.22 homicide. The two officers involved, whose names have not been released, are on paid administrative leave and the Allegheny County District Attorney's office is investigating.
But according to the bureau statement on the incident, "Officers were in the process of attempting to gain entry into the residence, a male inside of the home began firing shots in the direction of officers who were on the front porch. The officers returned fire and the 57-year-old homeowner was shot."
A suspect, 23-year-old Juan Brian Jetter-Clark, believed to be the burglar, was taken into police custody and charged with criminal trespass.
The Pittsburgh Citizens Police Review Board is waiting until any criminal investigation involving the incident is completed until they determine any possible action. But CPRB Executive Director Beth Pittinger says investigation into the incident hinges on what information was conveyed to the officers involved.
"You have to go back to the very beginning, which would be the call. What was conveyed to the 911 call taker? And then what did that call taker convey to the dispatcher and then what did the dispatcher convey to the police officers," says Pittinger. "You have to understand what they knew when they arrived. And then decide were their actions reasonable."
In a statement Acting Cheif Scott Schubert said:
"A horrible chain of events unfolded on Finley Street in Larimer this past Sunday. It's difficult to find the words to describe the amount of empathy that I have for both the family of Christopher Thompins and the two officers who were involved in the shooting. There are a lot of questions that we cannot immediately answer because we are currently reviewing the incident with the oversight of the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office. We have already reviewed the 911 call and video from the scene, and have scheduled interviews with the officers involved. We hope to offer details about the circumstances of the incident as soon as possible."
While Fisher might be encouraged by the bureau's response to the officer-involved shooting she says questions remain. Among them are whether the police officers announced themselves, was the homeowner already shooting when they arrived, was Thompkins shooting in the direction of the officers and ultimately, was he shooting at all.
"There's no doubt in our minds that this situation was not a malicious one. That doesn't mean there was no negligence," Fisher says. "We're still waiting to find out the facts to see what needs to be changed because this is a situation that should never happen.
"We are still concerned about this case because no one should ever call the police for help and end up killed by the police. We need to find out why that happened and how that happened."
And despite her more favorable view of the way the police have handled the incident, Fisher is disappointed by the media's response, especially a KDKA report
detailing the homicide victim's criminal past.
"It seems totally irrelevant. That type of reporting just keeps the divide between the community and law enforcement," says Fisher. "All it does is anger people and it makes it appear as if the police are trying to discredit the victim, to sway people's focus off of the issue and to criminalize and demonize the person who was shot by police, even though it's the media reporting it."
Fisher has worked hard to improve community-police relations over the years, an effort that was strengthened under the leadership of former Chief Cameron McLay
who left the city last year. Some worried progress made under McLay — a chief dedicated to improving the relationship between the police and the black community — would be lost.
Overwhelmingly that hasn't been the case according to Fisher. But she does worry about the department backsliding on some of the internal work Cheif McLay was doing.
"I was worried about the internal work on culture that he was working on not continuing and [worried] that there was not going to be a vocal and aggressive resistance to the [police union] and I'm still concerned about that," says Fisher.