Still from surveillance video released by BART of the July 3, 2011 incident.

A civil rights attorney says he is unmoved by official accounts of why a BART policeman shot a homeless man dead, and will sue the transit agency anyway.

In a report made public Tuesday, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascón cleared BART police officer James Crowell of criminal wrongdoing, finding no grounds to charge him. Crowell fatally shot the homeless man, Charles Hill, during a confrontation in July 2011 at the Civic Center station.

Oakland-based attorney John Burris is representing Hill’s family, filing a wrongful death and civil rights lawsuit over the death. “Our view is that excessive force was used,” Burris says. “Deadly force was not justified at the time.”

The D.A.’s report says Officer Crowell “acted lawfully in self-defense” when Hill allegedly advanced on him and another officer with a knife. It also states that toxicology tests found a significant amount of drugs in Hill’s system: alcohol, marijuana and a “significant amount” of methamphetamine. The toxicologist said that he has “rarely seen living people with Methamphetamine present in their bodies at the level he saw in Hill’s body,” according to the report. In combination, these drugs have a compound effect, purportedly amping up Hill’s aggressive, erratic behavior.

Burris has a long record of prosecuting police agencies over allegedly heavy-handed behavior. He says only once has he seen a district attorney’s office charge a police officer for shooting someone. As it turns out, that someone was Oscar Grant, shot dead on New Year’s Day 2009 by former BART Police Officer. Johannes Mehserle. A jury in Los Angeles convicted Mehserle of involuntary manslaughter in July 2010.

Burris concedes that Hill was drunk and clearly acting bizarrely, but the officers who responded, including Officer. Crowell, should have done a better job of easing the tensions on-scene rather than shooting Hill. “D.A. offices are very reluctant to prosecute police officers,” Burris says, “and they look for ways to justify the officer’s conduct. So it’s not surprising.”


Joshua Johnson

Since July 2010 Joshua Johnson (Twitter @jejohnson322) has been the Morning Newscaster on KQED Public Radio. Yes, that really is his "normal voice". He also guest-hosts KQED's public affairs program Forum and contributes to the television program KQED Newsroom.

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