LOCKPORT, NY (WKBW) — As Joseph Harper sat in his vehicle waiting for his wife and children to finish shopping at the Walmart on Transit Road, he was surrounded and held at gunpoint by law enforcement officers.
“Look off me,” a Niagara County deputy yelled at Harper. ‘Put your hands up. Hold your hands up. All the way up. Listen to what I say.’
The 59-year-old was handcuffed and escorted into a patrol car last July while officers began an investigation.
At the Walmart, deputies met with an employee named Eric Tompkins, who called police to the store. Tompkins claimed that as he walked across the parking lot, Harper brandished a gun.
“I was just walking by and he was like ‘hey white boy, why are you ranting?’ And then it held up like a huge gun,” Tompkins told deputies.
Captured on body-worn cameras, Harper’s lawyer shared the video with 7 News that he obtained through a freedom of information request.
“I’m cooperating,” Harper told deputies. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Deputies asked Tompkins to confirm that Harper was the man he identified as the person he believed was flashing a gun.
Deputy: “So you can see him now?”
Tompkins: “Yes that is him.”
Deputy: “Okay, wait here.”
Outside, officers searched the car, trunk, and parking lot for the weapon. No firearm was found, according to the Niagara County Sheriff’s Office.
Legitimacy of allegations questioned
Determining that he saw a gun, deputies pulled Walmart surveillance footage of the alleged encounter and reviewed it with Tompkins.
Deputy: “So wait, that’s him? Is that him there?”
Tompkins: “Yes, that’s him there.”
Deputy: “I didn’t even see anything.”
Harper joined the I-Team exclusively to share his story.
“I was thinking about boys, going through my head […] you know (George) Floyd and all that stuff,” Harper said.” What happens to black guys, you know? I thought I was going to die that day.”
Harper was released from police custody and officers shared their frustrations.
“I’m just so pissed off that this didn’t work out in the end because someone could have been hurt tonight,” a deputy said. “And I wouldn’t want that to happen.”
Neither Harper nor Tompkins were charged in the incident.
Niagara County Sheriff Michael J. Filicetti told 7 News it would be difficult to charge Tompkins for making a false call.
“If it was really just a false accusation that this guy (Tompkins) ends up saying to us, I just made it up, I don’t think I actually saw a gun, we could certainly charge him with falsely reporting a event,” he said. Filicetti. “We have to prove in court that he knew there was no gun. That he in fact called a false incident to get us to respond, and now we can charge him with falsely reporting an incident.”
Harper files lawsuit against Walmart, Tompkins
And while Tompkins will face no criminal consequences, he faces a civil suit. Harper filed a lawsuit against both Walmart and Tompkins.
Attorney David J. Wolff represents Harper, who is seeking a monetary judgment.
“He laughed at how Mr. Harper pulled a gun on him,” Wolff said. “I mean, it’s a very, very concerning thing that not only should this person take seriously, but Walmart should take seriously.”
A Walmart spokesperson gave the I-Team a statement saying, “We take the safety and security of our customers seriously. We have put processes in place to review our security measures. We will respond in court if necessary.”
But in court, Walmart filed a response to Harper’s complaint, denying that Eric Tompkins was ever an employee of Walmart, adding that everything that happened to Harper while on their property was a result of his own conduct or negligence.
An attorney representing Walmart declined to comment.
Tompkins responded to the lawsuit, writing, “I have not intentionally made a false statement in any way.” “Perhaps I was mistaken in what I saw,” he added, also requesting that the case be dropped. Tompkins did not respond to the I-Team’s request for comment.
“I still have trouble sleeping now,” Harper said. “I dream about it. It traumatized me. It really traumatized me. That’s all I can say.”
“I just think I was a black guy sitting there in the car,” Harper said.
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