By Jesse Bedayn/AP, Report for America
Destinee Thompson was supposed to be on her way to lunch with her stepmother in August 2021 when Colorado police, mistaking her for a robbery suspect, fatally shot the pregnant mother as she fled in her minivan.
Frustrated by the district attorney's decision last year not to charge the officers, Thompson's family filed a wrongful death and excessive force lawsuit on Tuesday against five officers from the Denver suburb of Arvada who were present when she was killed.
“I want their badges,” said Francis Thompson, Destinee’s father. “She’s 5-foot tall, seven months pregnant. ... You’re a grown man and you’re threatened by that? You don’t deserve to be able to wear a badge.”
They allege Destinee Thompson's race — she's part Hispanic and part Native American — played a role in her being targeted. Officers were looking for a suspect described as white or Hispanic.
“If this was a affluent white person getting into her vehicle, they would never have stopped her,” said Siddhartha Rathod, an attorney representing her family.
In a statement Wednesday, the Arvada Police Department said the family's lawyer has mischaracterized the events surrounding Thompson’s death, and the agency plans to mount a vigorous legal defense.
Police spokesperson Dave Snelling said the officers were justified in using deadly force because they believed Thompson's actions posed an imminent threat.
The episode took place on Aug. 17, 2021, when officers responded to a report of a woman who had stolen from a Target and brandished a knife at an employee. A witness followed the suspect to a nearby motel, where police arrived. Thompson was leaving that same motel to meet her stepmother, according to the lawsuit, which was first reported by The Denver Post.
While the description of the suspect included a white tank top — which Thompson was wearing — it also specified a chest tattoo, which Thompson did not have.
Officers noted that she didn't exactly match the description but decided to stop her to rule her out, according to the lawsuit. Thompson kept walking when police asked her to stop, told them she wasn’t the person they were looking for, and said she didn’t have an ID to show them.
The police spokesperson said the officers had “reasonable suspicion” to believe Thompson may have been involved in the robbery and were therefore justified in contacting her.
Thompson's family strongly disagrees.
“She’s done nothing wrong ... and she is confronted by these policemen and doesn’t want to talk to them,” Rathod said. “You have the right not to talk to police.”
Thompson, sitting in her minivan and surrounded by five officers, locked the doors and refused to get out, repeating, “It wasn't me,” the district attorney wrote in the 2022 letter explaining their decision not to charge the officers.
One officer smashed the passenger window with a baton, and Thompson backed the car up, hitting a police vehicle parked behind her. She then drove forward over the curb and onto the road.
One officer began shooting, according to the district attorney’s letter, because he believed another officer was struck by the car or being dragged under it, and eventually shot and killed Thompson. Her unborn child also died.
Thompson's family alleges the officer who fired could see that the other officer hadn't been hit or dragged by the car.
"Not a single one of the other officers thought it was necessary to shoot," added Rathod in an interview. “This is a murder of a pregnant woman.”
Snelling, the police spokesperson, said the department stands behind its officers' actions.
“Thompson unfortunately chose to engage in conduct that the officer reasonably believed posed an imminent threat to the life of another officer," Snelling wrote. "He chose to use deadly force to stop that threat.”
Snelling added that the agency later discovered Thompson had warrants out for her arrest and the autopsy found illicit drugs in her system.
Rathod and Francis Thompson dismissed the police mention of those warrants, saying it doesn't justify the officers' actions and that police at the scene didn’t know about her background during the interaction.
“All they knew was this woman didn’t fit the description of the shoplifting suspect,” Rathod said.
For Francis Thompson, who described his daughter as eager to help others and quick with a laugh, it feels like the police department is using Destinee's past to justify her death.
The grief hasn’t abated, he said. Every day there are moments when he cries, he said. “It’s hard for me to find a purpose in a lot of things anymore.”
Bedayn is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
You want to know what is really going on these days, especially in Colorado. We can help you keep up. The Lookout is a free, daily email newsletter with news and happenings from all over Colorado. Sign up here and we will see you in the morning!