BART police Officer James Crowell "acted lawfully" when he shot and killed a knife-wielding homeless man last July, according to a San Francisco District Attorney's office report made public by BART Tuesday.
The seven-month-long investigation concluded that Crowell was acting in self-defense when he opened fire on Charles Hill on the Civic Center station platform July 3, 2011.
"Officer Crowell only fired at Hill after recognizing an imminent threat of serious bodily injury and commanding Hill to drop the knife," the report said. "Officer Crowell fired at Hill in self-defense."
Investigators praised Crowell for maintaining a “calm and professional demeanor” when faced with an “aggressive individual who was under the influence."
The report offers the first direct testimony from Crowell about what led him to shoot Hill 25 seconds after he and his partner, Myron Lee, arrived at the Civic Center platform in response to a call about a “wobbly drunk."
Crowell told investigators that Hill, who was wearing a tie-dyed shirt, was waving his arms around and spilling vodka from a Smirnoff bottle when they arrived. Crowell said he told Hill to “come back over here,” and Hill responded by tossing the bottle at the officers. It shattered on a metal sign.
According to Crowell, Hill began approaching with a “pretty big” knife "with a 3- or 4-inch blade." Crowell estimated that Hill was 10 feet away when Crowell noticed the knife. Crowell told investigators he drew his gun and yelled, “Drop the knife!” He said Hill then cocked his arm and took a step toward him. Crowell said he believed “for certain” that Hill was going to throw the knife.
Investigators concluded that Hill was 15 feet away when Crowell fired his gun three times. Two of the bullets hit Hill, killing him, and one hit a nearby pillar. Citing his training, Crowell told investigators that the homeless man was within the 21-foot "danger zone" that a suspect armed with a knife can cover before an officer has time to draw his gun.
“This could be it, I could, you know, that could be, then I could be dead if I don’t do something,” Crowell told investigators. “You know, it’s me or him at this point, and my partner’s life’s in danger and my life’s in danger, you know. Yeah, I feared for my life.”
Investigators pressed Crowell about why he didn’t use the Taser that was on his belt. The officer said he “wouldn’t have even thought about it” because Hill had a deadly weapon.
“My training tells me to present, you know, 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,” Crowell said.
At the time of the shooting, Crowell’s partner was on the ground, having slipped on the spilled vodka, the report said. But Crowell didn’t appear to be aware of that fact, telling investigators that he thought his partner was on the other side of a BART sign. According to the report, Lee was 30 feet away from Hill and did not have a Taser.
The district attorney will not file charges against Crowell, who had been on the force 18 months at the time of the incident and has since moved on to a job at the FBI.
John Burris, an attorney representing Hill’s family in a lawsuit against the transit agency, said that he was not surprised by the report's conclusions.