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In 2016, a man named Tony Timpa called 911 for help in Dallas — and ended up dead. Initially, almost no one, including his family, knew what had happened to him.
I had just moved to the city to work as an investigative reporter for The Dallas Morning News, when I got a tip from someone worried that his neighbor had died in connection with a drug rehab. All he told me was the guy’s first name: Tony.
It wasn’t a lot to go on. I spent weeks looking through records of deaths or medical emergencies in or near rehabs in north Texas. On a hunch, I searched the city’s data for police incidents that month with the name “Tony.” That was where I found the bare-bones report that said a 32-year-old complainant named Anthony Alan Timpa had “died by unknown means.”
That meant three things: Timpa didn’t die in a rehab, he had been the one who called for help, and that police had to file an “in-custody” death report with the Texas attorney general. I requested that document, and started asking for everything related to Timpa’s death: The 911 call, police body camera footage, the full police report and his autopsy.
I was immediately stonewalled. Under Texas’ open records law, the Dallas Police Department and the city’s lawyers argued they could withhold the documents due to an “ongoing investigation.”
Meanwhile, Timpa’s mother, Vicki, was desperate to find out how her son had died. She hired a lawyer to file a civil rights lawsuit, initially naming the officers involved as John Does, because the city wouldn’t even release that basic information. Timpa’s father also joined the lawsuit against the officers and the city of Dallas.
My investigation into Timpa’s death was published in 2017, based on what we could show from interviews, lawsuit filings and the scant records we had. Timpa had a mental health breakdown while on drugs, called police for help — and died while handcuffed and pinned to the ground in the prone position, with an officer’s knee in his back.
The police refused to disclose nearly all the records about Timpa’s death until the family and The Dallas Morning News sought them in court; a judge ordered their release in 2019. We finally got the body camera footage, which was released during my final week at The Dallas Morning News, just before I joined The Marshall Project.
It took even longer for the Timpa family to get their day in court. Their lawsuit was first slowed because of the police department’s stonewalling, then the ongoing investigation (three officers were indicted on misdemeanor charges, which the district attorney later dropped). Then it was qualified immunity.
As my colleague Andrew Cohen has previously explained, “qualified immunity” is a legal doctrine that protects public officials from financial punishment for mistakes made while doing their jobs. Officials can act negligently — even recklessly — toward people in their care without legal or financial consequences. Critics say the doctrine has been construed so broadly that it often shields egregious and dangerous police actions.
Initially, a federal judge ruled that qualified immunity covered the officers involved in Timpa’s death. But in 2021, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that ruling, saying the officers’ training had taught them that prolonged use of a prone restraint on someone in Timpa’s state could result in “positional asphyxia death.” An officer engages in “objectively unreasonable” application of force by continuing to kneel on the back of an individual who has been subdued, the justices wrote, sending the lawsuit back to Texas for a jury to examine.
This September — seven years after Timpa’s death — a jury finally returned a verdict. After a week-long trial, jurors decided that three of the four police officers named in the lawsuit violated Timpa’s constitutional rights. But jurors also said three of the four officers were protected by qualified immunity. They awarded $1 million in compensatory damages to Timpa’s now 15-year-old son — though nothing to Timpa’s parents.
After the verdict, two jurors came forward at a press conference, saying the other jurors wanted to award the family nothing — mistakenly believing the officers would have to pay any damages out of their own pockets. That’s not true. Dallas police are indemnified, a separate legal protection that means the city would pay.
Lawyers for the Timpa family have vowed that they’re not giving up. They’re planning to file a motion for a new civil trial, seeking damages against the one officer who jurors decided was not protected by qualified immunity.
Lawyer Susan Hutchison, who represented Timpa’s father, told The Dallas Morning News: “I will never understand a verdict where the jury found that the officers violated someone’s constitutional rights and that resulted in their death — but that is OK? How on God’s green earth is that OK? How is this not a green light for police to continue to violate constitutional rights?”
“If a jury won’t stop them, who will?”