In an official report released Tuesday, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon announced that BART Police Officer James Crowell "acted lawfully in self defense" when he shot and killed transient Charles Hill at the Civic Center BART station last July. Crowell will thus not face charges for the incident.
On July 3, 2011, Crowell shot and killed Hill when Hill allegedly threw a knife at Crowell after he had been ordered to drop his weapon. A BART surveillance video appeared to show a knife thrown at Crowell just before he fired. Allegedly, Crowell's partner had slipped on liquor from Hill's thrown liquor bottle, leaving Crowell without cover.
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The shooting prompted citywide outrage when the public claimed that Crowell used excessive force in the incident. The public backlash included a candlelit vigil for Hill and weekly protests eventually leading to an intervention by online hacktivist group Anonymous when BART Spokesman Linton Johnson disabled cell phone service in an effort to quell a protest.
But after a seven-month investigation including questioning, a toxicology report, a CSI report, witness testimonies, physical evidence and a review of applicable laws, Gascon concluded that Crowell acted lawfully. Gascon explained his decision in the report:
Under California law, peace officers may use deadly force to protect themselves from the threat of death or great bodily harm. [...] Crowell only escalated his level of force when he saw Hill was brandishing a knife at them. [...] Officer Crowell's response to the deadly weapon was to reach for his firearm and to command Hill to drop the knife. Hill did not drop the knife; rather, he cocked back his arm, took a step forward toward the officer, and planted his foot in preparation to throw the knife. [...] With Hill only 15 feet away, Officer Crowell knew from his training that he was in serious danger. [...] Having no cover and presented with imminent serious bodily injury, Officer Crowell fired at Hill in self defense.
The report included statements from witnesses, as well as statements from Crowell, in which he explained his thinking during the incident.
"I'm close to this guy within that 21-foot threshold that I've been trained that is the danger zone for a knife or a deadly weapon," explained Crowell during the investigation. "You know, it's me or him at this point and my partner's life's in danger and my life's in danger," he said. "Yeah, I feared for my life."
When asked why Crowell didn't use his Taser or some other deterrent, Crowell claimed that he was only following his training:
"The situation he's presenting, a deadly weapon. So my first thought was deadly weapon. My training tells me to present an equal or greater force and that's why I'm instructed to fire because I didn't feel that any other weapon or anything else on my belt is going to meet what he's presenting," he said.
The July incident led some to question the process of BART officer training, especially as it was the second fatal shooting by a BART officer in 18 months. In 2009, BART officer Johannes Mehserle shot and killed an unarmed and contained Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART Station. Opponents argued that the BART police were out of control, with some comparing the agency's behavior to that of a police state.
The incident also prompted a lawsuit filed by Charles Hill's brother, Chris Hill, against BART. According to the Bay Citizen, the Hill family Attorney John Burris was not surprised by the District Attorney's decision.
“We don't have many prosecutions of officers that kill people,” said Burris to the Bay Citizen. “This won’t affect the civil case that we have against BART.”
Watch BART's surveillance video from the Charles Hill shooting below: