Militant Journalism

Florida: St. Pete police shoot Black teen, refuse to release bodycam footage

On Oct. 20 at approximately 3:30 p.m., St. Petersburg police officers arrived at Wildwood Park where they shot 17-year-old Christopher Tonsel in the stomach. Tonsel is still alive after a difficult month of hospitalization and is currently being held in an adult jail under appalling conditions. Despite pleas from Tonsel’s family, Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office still has not released the body cam footage of this incident.

Police set the narrative

St. Petersburg police officers first encountered Tonsel after a bystander called to report a dispute between Tonsel and his girlfriend. Police say that Tonsel ran down the street a few blocks and ended up at a nearby house, where Officer Leighton Williams shot him in the stomach.

The Pinellas County Sheriff’s Department, which investigates police shootings, held a press conference the day of the shooting to advance its narrative of events.

During the press conference, Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri gave inconsistent accounts of the shooting — claiming at one point that Tonsel was shot while pulling a gun out and at another point that he came out with a gun already in hand.

Catherine Jones, Tonsel’s mother, says that she has heard several conflicting accounts of what happened from detectives, yet the Sheriff’s office has not yet released the footage of the shooting, which would help clear everything up.

“If the officers were acting accordingly, why can’t they just release the footage?” she said in an interview with Liberation News. 

During the press conference, officials also demonized Tonsel as a “bad guy,” as though that justifies the shooting. 

Jones is very critical of this portrayal of her son: “They are really pushing this ‘he was a bad kid’ narrative. It’s not true. He is a good kid. It’s like they’re saying he doesn’t matter. … They have no evidence and are refusing to release the footage.”

Health deteriorating, Tonsel held in solitary at adult jail

After the shooting, Tonsel was taken to Bayfront Hospital, where he was put on a ventilator. While in the hospital, he developed pneumonia and had to get a tracheostomy, which became infected. Ultimately, he was hospitalized for over a month. 

Although he is still a minor, Tonsel was transferred directly from the hospital to the 49th Street adult jail in Clearwater, where he is being held in torturous conditions.

Jones reports that Tonsel is being held in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day. Furthermore, he has been denied his pain medicine since he arrived at the jail. Tonsel is still facing a number of other health issues from the shooting, including liver and pancreas damage and blood clots. His dressings must be changed twice a day. 

Notably, Jones said that before the shooting, Tonsel weighed around 170 pounds and that he now weighs less than 120 pounds. He has not been able to keep any food down.

She is worried about his deteriorating health, and whether he will even make it to court: “[People are asking] ‘is he going to trial or is he going to take a plea?’ Well, he’s not going to know. We’re not going to know.” 

What’s next?

Tonsel is facing several charges, including burglary, aggravated assault against a police officer, possession of a firearm by a person under 18 years of age and domestic battery. While incarcerated, Tonsel has consistently had difficulty getting in contact with his public defenders to effectively dispute these charges.

The state has offered Tonsel a plea deal of 58 months behind bars. Plea deals are commonly used to incarcerate people who are stuck in a difficult position. Many defendants accept plea deals regardless of their guilt or innocence, because they do not want to risk being wrongly convicted in court, where they will likely be saddled with much longer sentences than the plea deal ensures. In fact, 90 to 95% of both federal and state court cases end in plea deals.

In this case, a plea deal also means that the state’s official story is less likely to be scrutinized in a court of law.

Ultimately, even if Tonsel does not accept the deal, it is clear that local authorities hope to gloss over this police shooting by demonizing the victim and withholding the video evidence which documents the truth of the incident.

However, the days when police can easily cover up cases of brutality and misconduct are long gone.

Officials must stop this cover-up, release the body cam footage to the public, provide Tonsel with proper medical care, and ensure his full access to legal counsel immediately!

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