Eyewitness to Police Shooting of Dirt-Bike Rider Disputes Official Account
A North Philadelphia man who, along with two of his children, witnessed at close range the fatal shooting of dirt-bike rider David Jones by a Philadelphia police officer on June 8th — and whose account the police department itself has partially presented to the media in support of its version of events — has given an exclusive interview to Philadelphia magazine in which he tells the entire story of what he saw for the first time.
His full account calls into question the judgment of Officer Ryan Pownhall, a 12-year veteran, who detoured from an assignment to transport crime victims to make what initially looked like a routine motor vehicle stop — an action that Police Commissioner Richard Ross has said he finds troubling. (Because the incident is under investigation, department policy prohibits Pownhall from speaking with the media.)
That Thursday afternoon was playing out like any other for Terrance F. and his family. (We are withholding his last name to protect the identities of the children involved.) After being picked up from school, the children began their chore routine at home. Eventually, however, Terrance, who’s in his early 30s and was born and raised in Philadelphia, noticed that one of the oldest ones, a near teen, wasn’t accounted for. Panic wasn’t the first reaction — it was assumed the child had just started an impromptu game of hide-and-seek – but once the usual hiding spots inside and outside the house had been checked, it soon became clear there was a need to worry.
Two hours later, the child turned up out of breath, frazzled, and describing an abduction by individuals in a white car who had abandoned the vehicle a short time later at Worth and Wakeling streets, in Frankford. Terrance then called the police to report the crime.
Terrance recalls multiple police arriving at his family’s home. One of the responding officers, Ryan Pownhall, took Terrance, the victim, and a sibling in his cruiser to see whether the child could identify anyone or, at the very least, the car involved. When they reached Worth and Wakeling, the white car was gone.
Back at the family’s house, Pownhall was instructed to take Terrance and the children to the Special Victims Unit for further investigation. Terrance, who rode in the back seat with the children, characterizes the officer’s demeanor throughout this process as normal: “I had no reason not to trust the officer at this point,” he says.
Terrance soon noticed that they were traveling an unfamiliar route. “I thought I was going to Front and Lehigh,” he says — the old location of the SVU — but he chose not to question Pownhall. It was as they approached the unit’s new location at 300 East Hunting Park Avenue that Terrance and the officer noticed a man driving recklessly on a dirt bike, which are illegal in Philadelphia.
Terrance says that he saw a police SUV following but not obviously pursuing the biker, later identified as 30-year-old Philadelphia resident David Jones. Though the SUV’s siren and lights were not on, Jones, according to Terrance, made a sharp right onto the sidewalk on Whitaker Avenue, perhaps assuming the police were about to pull him over. The SUV, however, continued driving past.
Terrance’s recollection of the events that follow is mostly in line with what the police say Pownhall told them — though when the storylines diverge, they do so dramatically.
This is how the police characterized the rest of the incident in an official statement:
The officer exited his patrol vehicle and while speaking with the offender, observed the male holding the front of his waistband. The officer conducted a pat-down and felt a firearm in the male’s waistband. While using his left hand to prevent the offender from pulling the weapon out, the officer drew his firearm and repeatedly directed the male not to touch the firearm. A struggle ensued as the offender attempted to pull the firearm from his waistband. The officer squeezed the trigger of his service pistol. The officer’s weapon did not fire, and the officer attempted to eject the chambered (unfired) round. The male began to run as the officer cleared the unfired round and the officer discharged three rounds striking the offender.
According to Terrance, Pownhall had watched Jones on the dirt-bike, reviving up the engine, for at least 20 seconds while the police car was stopped at a red light at Hunting Park and Whitaker. He heard Pownhall say “Look at this motherfucker.” As the cruiser pulled up next to Jones, Terrance says, the biker attempted to drive away, but the officer quickly got out of the car and said “I’m taking your shit.” (According to police, Pownhall claims that he did not intend to confiscate the bike, but rather was going to tell Jones to get it off the street.)
Terrance says that Pownhall and Jones were face to face as the officer approached and put his hand on Jones to try to spin him around to frisk him. Jones shrugged off the contact, but once Pownhall managed to get behind Jones, the officer put his gun to his head, Terrance claims. (Police say they tried to obtain footage of this part of the encounter from a nearby auto shop, but that its camera turned out to be inoperable.)
Terrance confirms that around this point he said “Bruh, don’t do it, don’t do it.” In the media, the police have framed that moment as Terrance warning Jones not to reach for a gun, but Terrance says that he was telling Jones not to resist the officer. “No one ever asked me to clarify,” Terrance says.
During the tussle, Terrance says, a gun fell from Jones’s waistband to the ground — the first time Terrance says he saw that Jones had a weapon — but the officer didn’t appear to notice. When Jones, who Terrance says looked scared, broke free of Pownhall’s grip and ran, the officer exchanged his own gun for a Taser and deployed it. (Police would not confirm whether Pownhall had a Taser or used one during the incident.)
Getting hit with the Taser, which Terrance recalls sounding like electrical wire shorting out, caused Jones to buckle but not fall. Pownhall then threw the Taser down, pulled his gun back out, and fired immediately, Terrance says, disputing the police account of the officer’s gun jamming. The shots struck Jones in the back and buttocks, causing him to crumple to the ground.
Terrance says that when Pownhall ran over to where Jones lay, he was convinced he’d find the gun. (Ross later confirmed this, saying that unreleased video footage shows the officer looking frantically for the weapon he believed to be nearby.)
Terrance said Officer Pownhall came back to car and yelled “That motherfucker had a gun!”
“I’m the one who showed him where the gun was,” says Terrance, who saw the weapon lying on the ground next to the police cruiser.
After the shooting, Terrance and his children waited at the scene for two hours, and were then transported to South Philadelphia’s Officer Involved Shooting Investigation Unit, where they spoke with Det. Derrick Jacobs. (Jacobs would confirm to me only that a conversation with a male witness occurred.) It wasn’t until the next day that Terrance finally met with a Special Victims Unit detective at his home; the case remains open.
On Monday, June 19th, Commissioner Ross discussed the case in a private meeting in which he said that while he has concerns about what he saw in the video, there are issues that may have less to do with the fatal shooting and more to do with the fact that Pownhall had complainants in his car when the deadly incident occurred.
According to Ross, there are a couple of videos from different sources that show Jones driving recklessly. Ross confirmed that Pownhall thought the police vehicle behind Jones on Hunting Park Avenue was chasing him, but soon realized that it wasn’t.
“I don’t know why he didn’t just, personally, let the motorcycle go,” Ross said — he could simply have radioed it in as a motor vehicle violation.
Terrance is one of small number of witnesses to the shooting. There’s also a homeless man who may have spoken to the news media already, though the PPD is having trouble tracking him down, and there’s someone who was driving by, according to Ross, but that person “absolutely refuses” to give a statement on the record. Ross said he has not met Terrance, but that he has “no reason not to believe the witness is credible.”
Ross said that the incident is currently being investigated, with the aim of determining what the officer reasonably believed at the time he discharged his weapon. Department policy clearly prohibits shooting a fleeing suspect who doesn’t pose an imminent threat, but the officer may have believed his life was still in jeopardy. Ross did say that there is “no indication Mr. Jones made a furtive movement to try to do anything that looked like it was threatening.” Police are also waiting for DNA or fingerprints to come back on the gun.
Erica Atwood, the acting executive director of the civilian Police Advisory Commission — which had begun to investigate the scenes of police-involved shootings independently following the killing of Brandon Tate-Brown in 2014 — told me that PAC will wait for the outcome of the PPD investigation before considering launching one in this case.
What’s already known for sure is that David Jones was not in possession of a gun at the time he was shot.