Oakland civil rights attorney John Burris alleged today that a homeless man didn’t pose any danger to BART police when they fatally shot him at the Civic Center Station in San Francisco last summer.
Burris, who has filed a wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Oakland on behalf of the family of 45-year-old Charles Hill, admitted that Hill threw a knife at officers James Crowell and Myron Lee at the Civic Center Station in San Francisco at about 9:45 p.m. on July 3 but said it missed them by a large margin and he “was no longer a threat” when Crowell fatally shot him.
But BART’s lawyer, Dale Allen, said he believes Crowell was justified in shooting Hill because Hill was still “an imminent threat” since he remained armed with a second knife and a bottle and had already “demonstrated a propensity for violence.”
Allen said Crowell and Lee “acted appropriately to the danger they were facing.”
Burris said the suit was filed on behalf of Hill’s brother, Chris Hill who lives on the East Coast, because his parents are dead.
The suit alleges that Crowley and Lee “acted under color of law by shooting and killing decedent (Hill) without lawful justification” and seeks unspecified damages from BART, its police chief, Kenton Rainey and the two officers.
The suit says Crowell, who left BART after the shooting and now works for the FBI, “inexplicably” and “unlawfully” shot Hill three times in the chest, “mortally wounding him and ultimately causing his death.”
The suit claims that BART and Rainey “breached their duty of care to the public” by failing to properly train Crowell and Lee in arresting and using force against emotionally disturbed and mentally impaired people.
But Allen said the two officers were properly trained in dealing with such people and the fact that someone is mentally impaired “doesn’t make them less dangerous.”
The suit says Hill “was celebrating the eve of America’s Independence Day” at the Civic Center station when he was noticed by a BART employee who told police that he was holding an open bottle of alcohol on the platform.
The employee described Hill as being drunk and wobbling around the platform “but did not mention that Hill appeared armed or that he was a threat to anyone,” the suit says.
In fact, eyewitnesses to the incident described Hill as a “drunk hippie,” according to the suit.
Hill “was a small, disheveled-looking middle aged white man” and stood “a mere 5-foot-6-inches tall and weighed a spindly 150 pounds” and was wearing pants, a tie-dye shirt and sported a long gray suit, the suit says.
It alleges that when Crowley and Lee arrived at the station “they saw a multitude of passengers milling about the platform who were not acting in a manner consistent with perceiving Hill as a threat to their safety.”
The suit says the two officers “immediately escalated the situation by shouting conflicting and confusing commands at Mr. Hill.”
Hill responded by throwing down his bottle of alcohol but Crowell “further escalated the situation by pulling his firearm and aiming it at Mr. Hill,” the suit says.
Hill “responded to the officers” aggressiveness by slowly ‘walking like Frankenstein’ toward them” and then throwing a knife in the direction of Crowell, according to the suit.
But Allen said if it’s true that Hill walked like Frankenstein toward the officers that would support his belief that Hill represented a threat to them.
Allen also said Burris has no basis for alleging that Crowell and Lee escalated the situation by giving confusing commands, saying they were in full uniform and clearly and repeatedly ordered Hill to drop his knives.
BART spokesman Jim Allison said the shooting is still being investigated by the San Francisco Police Department.
Jeff Shuttleworth, Bay City News