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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Ohio police release body camera video of officer shooting 15-year-old boy who family says had toy gun

Police in Akron, Ohio, released video of an officer shooting a 15-year-old boy who was holding what his family says was a toy gun, video that shows the teenager was struck seconds after the officer ordered him to put his hands up last week.

Tavion Koonce-Williams was shot in the wrist on April 1 in Akron by Officer Ryan Westlake, a nine-year department veteran, who was responding to a call about a person pointing a gun at houses. Akron police said the gun Tavion had been carrying was a “facsimile.”

On Monday, the city of Akron released Westlake’s file, revealing a history of disciplinary actions and use-of-force incidents, as the police department released the video of the interaction “in an effort to be as transparent as possible.”

The shooting

Shortly after 7 p.m. on April 1, a woman called police claiming she had seen a Black male “pull out a gun” and start pointing it at houses in the area of Tonawanda Avenue and Newton Street, Akron police said in a news release the same day.

Westlake was the responding officer. He found the person, later identified by his family as Tavion, several blocks away in the area of Brittain Road and Ottawa Avenue and fired a single bullet that struck him. Tavion was taken to a hospital with a non-life-threatening injury, police said in their initial release.

Police said they recovered what appeared to be “a facsimile firearm that the teen allegedly had in his possession in the moments leading up to the shooting.”

Imokhai Okolo, an attorney for Tavion’s family, said in a statement Monday that Tavion had a toy gun.

“Tavion is heard multiple times saying: ‘It’s a fake … I just wanted to be safe,’” Okolo said in a statement Monday, adding that “at no point was that toy gun pointed at anyone’s home, at any individual, and certainly not any member of the Akron Police Department.”

The video

In the video, Westlake is seen at 7:11 p.m. in his patrol vehicle slowing down upon seeing Tavion walking on a block.

“Hey, where are you coming from, can I see your hands real quick?” Westlake asks through the open window as he begins to get out of the vehicle.

Westlake then reaches toward his department-issued weapon and points it at Tavion, and a shot is fired seconds later.

At the same time, Westlake exclaims “Oh s—!” upon hearing the discharge — still at 7:11 p.m.

“Shots fired! Shots fired!” Westlake says as he gets out of the vehicle. Tavion screams, “It’s fake! It’s fake!” with his hands raised.

Westlake orders him to drop on the ground, and Tavion, visibly in distress, immediately complies and repeats: “It’s fake, I promise you. Look, it’s a fake gun!”

Westlake tells him to put his hands behind his back. Tavion complies, and blood is visible on his right wrist.

“My hand hurts. Mister, I wanted to be safe!” Tavion exclaims.

“Let’s get a medical team, f—, man,” Westlake says as other officers arrive at the scene. He tries to put handcuffs on Tavion, then removes them from the bloody wrist and calls for a tourniquet.

Another officer applies the tourniquet and asks Tavion whether he was hit anywhere else.

“It’s my hand. Please, officer, I’m a good kid. Bro, I get A’s in school. I play football. I just wanted to be safe. My cousin just died,” he says, crying out in pain, explaining in the video that he had come from his cousin’s funeral.

The entire interaction lasts four minutes.

The video then shows still images with a circle around what appears to be the toy or facsimile gun in Tavion’s hand at the start of the clip. Another still shows the gun on the grass near the patrol vehicle and Tavion several feet away with his hands raised.

The officer

The city identified Westlake as the officer Monday. He was placed on paid administrative leave under department procedures.

Westlake, 33, who was hired in June 2014, is a graduate of the Kent State University Police Academy.

“The officer’s file includes a number of disciplinary actions and use of force incidents, one of which has been deemed unreasonable,” Akron Mayor Shammas Malik’s office said in a release.

The files show that in May 2021, he was suspended for 71 days because of multiple incidents that year, including using profanity, using an anti-gay slur and brandishing his firearm toward his girlfriend while intoxicated, as well as off-duty “extremely intoxicated” incidents in Ohio and Florida in which he exhibited behaviors and actions “that discredited the police department.”

Westlake appealed the chief’s recommendation to suspend him, and the mayor at the time, Daniel Horrigan, terminated his employment on July 20, 2021, his personnel and disciplinary records show.

The next day, Westlake’s termination was rescinded, and he was reinstated after he, the city of Akron and the local police union agreed to the suspension, according to the disciplinary records.

He was also suspended for two days without pay in June 2022 for a use-of-force incident on Nov. 23, 2021, less than a month after he returned to work from his last suspension, according to the records. In that case, he hit a suspect’s car during a vehicle pursuit and failed to report it in a timely fashion.

In a statement Tuesday, Westlake’s union called anyone who might criticize him for the April 1 shooting a “Monday morning quarterback.”

“The officer involved acted within policy and procedure and according to his training,” the Fraternal Order of Police, Akron Lodge 7, said in the Facebook statement. “Immediately after being faced with a split-second decision to use deadly force, he and other officers began rendering medical treatment to the suspect.”

Westlake could not immediately be reached for comment.

‘Black boys deserve to grow up and live’

“The Koonce and Williams family are heartbroken and seek justice and accountability for lack of humanity that was shown to Tavion,” Okolo said in a statement Monday.

“Tavion now finds himself in the lineage of Black youth being profiled and shot by the Akron Police Department with absolutely no justification or regard for human life,” he said.

Okolo stressed that Tavion obeyed all of the officer’s commands yet was still shot.

“How is it that a 15-year-old child could be gunned down just a block from his grandmother’s home while his hands were up doing exactly what the police officer asked him to do? … Black boys deserve to grow up and live without the threat of walking home and being shot by the police officer,” he said.

He and the family will hold a news conference this week “to demand justice and accountability for Tavion and seek answers.”

The Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation is conducting an independent investigation into the use-of-force incident, and its findings will be turned over to the state attorney general’s office for review; it will then present the information to a Summit County grand jury, Akron police and the mayor’s office said.

Upon the completion of the BCI probe, the Akron Police Department’s Office of Professional Standards and Accountability will conduct a separate internal investigation, which will be shared with the chief and the independent police auditor for their review.

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