The sister of a man fatally shot in the back by a Knoxville Police Department officer investigating a misdemeanor has filed a $10 million federal lawsuit against the city.
Attorneys Lance Baker and Joshua Hedrick filed in U.S. District Court a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Sophia Pheap, whose brother was fatally shot by KPD Officer Dylan Williams in a northwest Knoxville parking lot in August 2019.
The lawsuit accuses Williams of using excessive force in his handling of his encounter with Channara Tom “Philly” Pheap, 33, in the Clear Springs Apartments parking lot off Merchant Drive.
It alleges city leaders and KPD Chief Eve Thomas have consistently failed to properly train and discipline officers who use force.
KPD Spokesman Scott Erland declined comment on the lawsuit Thursday, citing the city’s policy against publicly speaking about pending litigation.
Williams went to the Clear Springs Apartments complex to try to find the driver suspected of fleeing a traffic accident. The vehicle Williams was looking for, records show, was registered to a woman who lived in that complex.
Williams encountered Pheap, who is of Cambodian descent and lived in Knoxville with his young daughter, as headed toward an apartment. In a manner of minutes, the unarmed Pheap was dead in the parking lot, shot in the back. The shooting was not captured on police video.
Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen later ruled that Williams’ use of deadly force was appropriate and legal. She said Williams had no choice but to employ deadly force.
But Sophia Pheap disagrees.
Lawsuit: Distance matters
According to the lawsuit, Williams stopped Pheap, who was walking past him, even though he knew the suspect he was in search of was a white woman. Pheap is a dark-skinned man. Williams conducted a search of Pheap, without, the lawsuit alleges, cause.
Although the lawsuit doesn’t explain why, Pheap turned away from Williams during the search and began to run. Williams used a “leg sweep” maneuver and grabbed Pheap around his waist, the lawsuit said. The two wrestled. Pheap broke free and ran.
What happened next was not caught on video.
Allen has said Williams twice threatened to shock Pheap with his Taser as he ran. Williams later said Pheap turned around and put his hands in the air — only to lunge forward and grab the front of the Taser moments later.
Williams said Pheap wrested the Taser from his grasp as he tried and failed to free his police dog from the back seat of his cruiser. Pheap fired the Taser at the officer, and Williams said he felt electricity in his arms and neck.
Williams fired two shots with his service weapon. Prosecutors said Pheap then ran, bleeding, around a nearby dumpster and fell to the ground.
But the lawsuit alleges Williams fired those two shots from more than 13 yards away while Pheap was running and no longer a threat.
“At the moment Officer Williams fired the two shots at Mr. Pheap and killed him, the altercation between the two men had ended,” the lawsuit states. “They were separated by approximately 40 feet, by one witness account, with Mr. Pheap unarmed and running away from Officer Williams.
“Mr. Pheap thus posed no imminent threat of danger to Officer Williams at the time Officer Williams shot him,” the lawsuit states. “Accordingly, Officer Williams’ use of deadly force can hardly be reasonable under these circumstances.”
Officer training questioned
The lawsuit accuses the police chief and city leaders of improperly training Williams and his fellow officers in nonviolent de-escalation techniques and the proper use of nonlethal force.
Williams’ actions in the encounter with Pheap are proof, the lawsuit states.
“Despite repeated opportunities, Officer Williams failed to bring Mr. Pheap into control by using non-deadly force,” the lawsuit states. “Mr. Pheap was running away and unarmed and did not pose an immediate threat of death or serious bodily injury to Officer Williams at the time he drew his handgun and fired.
“A reasonable, trained, skilled, or proficient officer in Officer Williams’ circumstances could not have believed that using deadly force in shooting Mr. Pheap was necessary in the situation at hand, or that it was measured or patterned for the circumstances presented,” the lawsuit states.
“From his initial contact with Mr. Pheap, Officer Williams’ actions and his lack of proper training from the KPD unnecessarily and unreasonably escalated a placid situation – the routine questioning of a possible misdemeanor offense suspect … into a situation of deadly force, firing two rounds to fatally wound a fleeing and unarmed Mr. Pheap from approximately 40 feet away.”
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