Activists plan rally, dispute task force findings in police shooting of St. Pete teenager

St. Pete Cop Watch and the PSL Tampa Bay are hosting the rally Friday.

click to enlarge A rally in response to the police shooting of Christopher Deon Tonsel is planned for Friday, Jan. 7 at 5:30 p.m. outside SPPD headquarters at 1301 1st Ave N., St. Petersburg. - PSLTAMPABAY/INSTAGRAM
A rally in response to the police shooting of Christopher Deon Tonsel is planned for Friday, Jan. 7 at 5:30 p.m. outside SPPD headquarters at 1301 1st Ave N., St. Petersburg.
As new bodycam footage surfaces showing the shooting of Christopher Deon Tonsel by a St. Pete Police Department (SPPD) officer, controversy around the incident continues as activists plan a rally for Friday.

Yesterday, a Pinellas County Sheriff's task force shared the results of an investigation which found that SPPD officer Leighton Williams was justified in the October 2021 shooting of Tonsel. The shooting resulted in a life threatening injury which the 17-year-old later recovered from. After holding bodycam footage for months, to the ire of Tonsel's family and local activists, an edited version of the footage was released.

Tonsel—who turns 18 next month—was arrested on the scene after the Oct. 20 shooting and charged 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 claims that bodycam footage shows that Williams was justified in the shooting because he feared for his life as he pursued Tonsel, who was armed.  Tonsel's family and activists say that the footage shows that Tonsel did not point his gun at Williams. They claim that the footage shows the gun falling and was close to the ground as the sound from William's gun explodes.

A rally is planned for Friday, Jan. 7 at 5:30 p.m. outside SPPD headquarters at 1301 1st Ave N., St. Petersburg.

The rally was originally planned to demand SPPD release the bodycam footage, but after public pressure, the video was released on Wednesday. After seeing the video, activists are calling for Tonsel to be released and for Williams to be fired and arrested, claiming he unjustly shot Tonsel.

In the video, Williams and his K-9 search for Tonsel who was a person of interest after a dispatch call where the caller accused the teen of committing assault against a woman. As Williams runs along the side of the house, he shouts, "Stop or you're gonna get bit!" He turns toward Tonsel, who is seen on bodycam footage sitting on an air conditioning unit and turned away from the officer.

Within two seconds Williams shouts, "Get on the ground, let me see your hands, put the gun down!" During that time, Williams pulls out his gun and fires. Seventeen seconds into the video, slowed down to .25 speed, Tonsel's gun appears to come into view, falling, inches above the ground as the sound from Williams' gun enters the video.

The video then abruptly cuts to a close up of Tonsel turned away from the officer, then turning toward him, eyes wide. The sound is removed from this part so it's difficult to determine if his eyes went wide before or after he was shot. The video then zooms in on the falling gun, once again without sound and therefore without context as to when the gun fell.

Activists say the beginning of the video shows evidence that Williams unnecessarily shot Tonsel, while the Pinellas task force said that Tonsel's eyes in the video looked as if he was "acquiring a target."

On Oct. 25, five days after the incident, Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said during a press conference that Tonsel had pointed his gun at Williams. The report instead says that Tonsel appeared to pull out the firearm and turn toward Williams, making him fear for his life and fire one shot at Tonsel. When asked about the difference between Gualtieri's statement and the report's findings, the PCSO Public Information Officer (PIO) told CL that when Gualtieri spoke the investigation details were still unfolding and that the Sheriff prefaced his statement in October with that in mind.

When asked if the PCSO would like to comment on the claims that the video shows the gun near the ground when Williams shoots his gun, PCSO offered this response: "The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office does not have an additional statement and we refer you back to the letter from the sheriff."

SPPD's PIO said that the video—specifically when slowed down—could be misleading, because the sound in the video may not exemplify when William's actually pulled the trigger. The PIO did not expand further and said that PCSO would be the ones to turn to for more answers, since they conducted the investigation.

Tonsel's mother Catherine Jones told CL Tampa Bay that he looked frightened in the video, and that she thinks he was in the process of dropping the gun as Williams rounded the corner.

"He was turned away at first, then when he turned, in his eyes he looks like he was scared for his life."

tweet this
"He was turned away at first, then when he turned, in his eyes he looks like he was scared for his life," Jones told CL.

Jones said she's headed to the police department tomorrow to see the entire, unedited video for more answers. She said that she's only seen her son in person twice since the incident, and that the family couldn't visit him during the holidays because of staffing issues at the Pinellas County Jail where he's being held in solitary confinement. She claims that her son has gone from 170 to 120 pounds as he still suffers from his wound.

The task force report also says that Tonsel has had run-ins with law enforcement in the past and accuses him of being gang affiliated, but did not say much about officer William's history, so CL requested it.

According to SPPD records, Williams had a 2020 misconduct incident where he was found to have violated four SPPD General Order and Standard operating procedures. In the incident, he pursued a driver who fled from him during a traffic stop, failed to notify HQ of a traffic stop, failed to record an injury caused by his K-9, failed to submit video evidence of the incident before the end of his shift, and failed to be efficient in his assigned duties.

St. Pete Cop Watch and the PSL Tampa Bay are hosting the rally Friday, and in a social media post they pointed out the gun falling to the ground, writing, "This completely upends the police narrative that Chris was pointing a gun at the Officer when he was shot."

Watch the video on YouTube (warning: graphic footage of a shooting).

About The Author

Justin Garcia

Justin Garcia previously wrote for the USA Today Network, The Economic Hardship Reporting Project, Scalawag Magazine, and various other news outlets. When he's not writing, Justin likes to make music, read, play basketball and spend time with loved ones. 

Scroll to read more Tampa Bay News articles
Join the Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at [email protected]