January 08, 2022

Photos: Activists and community members gather to support 17 year-old shot by St. Pete police officer

DAVE DECKER
Dave Decker
According to PSL Tampa Bay and St. Pete Cop Watch—organizers of Friday’s protest outside the St. Pete Police Department—public pressure was crucial in getting bodycam footage showing officer Leighton Williams shooting 17-year-old Christopher Tonsel released. Pressure is what they plan on applying until Tonsel is released, his charges are dropped, and the officer who unjustly shot him faces repercussions.

With dozens of protesters and several media affiliates present, the rally started off at roughly 6 p.m. with an emotional appearance from Christopher Tonsel’s mother, Catherine Jones, who addressed the steps that need to be taken in order for justice to be served.
“When did you fear for your life and why did you think it was alright to shoot my son?” And then continue to lie and lie and hide evidence. It just doesn't make sense,” Jones said through tears. “He has high blood pressure, he’s unable to keep his food down, he has panic attacks. You literally destroyed his life, and for what?”

Jones said that her son spends 23 hours a day by himself, and has lost over 40 pounds during his time at the Pinellas County jail.

Although this rally didn’t leave St. Pete’s new police headquarters, chants like “When Black lives are under attack, what do we do?! Stand up fight back!“ could be heard echoing from the group of about 40 protesters. There was no presence from the police other than rows of barricades erected in front of the entrance.

Since the shooting of 17 year-old Tonsel on Oct. 20, observers and those present at the rally have noted discrepancies in law enforcement's narrative surrounding the incident, despite the Pinellas County use-of force task force deeming it a “lawful” shooting after conducting their own investigation. From CL’s recent story about the shooting:

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.

Tonsel is currently being charged as an adult for aggravated assault, carrying a concealed firearm, and possession of a firearm by an individual under 18.

About halfway through the event, Jones, his mother, had to walk away, as PSL Tampa Bay’s Karla Correa stepped in to read the speech for her. Tonsel’s mother’s statement was addressed directly to officer Williams.

“How many times have you twisted the truth to fit your own narrative?” Karla read as she stood in front of a blown-up body camera still depicting Christopher’s dropped gun.

Although there are SPPD-supporters expressing their opinions online, Friday night’s protest was generally void of pushback, besides one man who screamed “he tried to shoot a cop!” as he sped by in his truck. The bodycam video does not even show Tonsel pointing his gun at Williams.

The last person who addressed the crowd— as the sun set on St. Petersburg—was Tonsel’s little young cousin, who stood in front of “an injury for one is an injury for all!” banner as she turned to the crowd of protesters.

“Going to school everyday, I’m so sad about everyone talking about the situation and then coming home without seeing him or being able to talk to him,” the young girl said. “I just wanted to say thank you all for coming out and being here to protest with us.”

Her impromptu speech was met with roaring applause and support from the dozens of protesters present, as the rally quietly came to a close.
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Activists and community members gather to support 17 year-old shot by a St. Pete police officer
Dave Decker

Activists and community members gather to support 17 year-old shot by a St. Pete police officer
Dave Decker

Activists and community members gather to support 17 year-old shot by a St. Pete police officer
Dave Decker

Activists and community members gather to support 17 year-old shot by a St. Pete police officer
Dave Decker

Activists and community members gather to support 17 year-old shot by a St. Pete police officer
Dave Decker

Join the Creative Loafing Tampa Bay Press Club

At a time when local-based reporting is critical, support from our readers is essential to our future.