BART has exonerated a police officer who shot and killed a knife-wielding homeless man on the Civic Center platform last July, The Bay Citizen has learned.
The results of the BART police department's yearlong internal investigation came five months after the San Francisco district attorney determined the officer, James Crowell, fired his weapon in self-defense. Crowell, who was responding to a call about a "wobbly drunk," shot and killed Charles Hill, a 45-year-old transient, on July 3, 2011. BART security camera video showed Crowell opening fire 25 seconds after arriving on the platform.
Shortly after the shooting, Crowell left BART to work for the FBI.
Since the shooting, BART has made strides toward implementing long-delayed reforms. But its Citizen Review Board, which was formed in 2010 for police oversight, and its independent police auditor have been criticized for inaction – and did not undertake their own investigation of the Hill shooting.
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Yesterday morning, during a sparsely attended review board meeting, Mark Smith, the independent police auditor hired shortly before Hill was killed, announced that the agency's investigation into the “officer-involved shooting” had been closed.
Smith and the board discussed the shooting while referring to a brief write-up of the internal investigation, which concluded that “Police Officer #1” was exonerated after a 353-day probe into use of force. Board member Peter Barnett asked Smith if the exoneration was in reference to the Hill shooting. Smith said it was. A person familiar with the investigation also confirmed to The Bay Citizen that Crowell was cleared.
Following yesterday's meeting, Smith and BART Police Chief Kenton Rainey declined to comment on the case, saying it was a personnel matter. An attorney representing Crowell, Dale Allen, also declined to comment.
Two years before Hill was killed, a BART police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man, Oscar Grant, on the platform at the Fruitvale station. In the wake of Grant's death and the protests that followed, BART vowed to take steps to prevent such shootings, agreeing to 127 policy changes recommended by an independent auditor.
The transit agency had completed 27 of those reforms at the time of the Hill shooting. The two officers involved had not had crisis intervention training and only one had a Taser, even though an audit following the Grant shooting recommended Tasers and training for all officers.
In the year since the Hill shooting, the department has made progress toward meeting those reforms, completing 85 of the reforms by the end of June.
BART has introduced zoned policing so that officers can get to know the people on their beats. In June, the department hired a crisis intervention consultant, Armando Sandoval, to train officers and help direct mentally ill people who frequent BART stations to services. By the end of the year, about 100 officers will be trained in crisis intervention techniques.
“They are changing,” said Lynette Sweet, a BART board member who has been critical of the department in the past.
Sweet described a recent incident in which BART officers disarmed another knife-wielding individual without the use of weapons.
“The idea that we had officers on the scene who knew that conversation could probably de-escalate the situation as opposed to the gung ho ‘Let's tase him, let’s shoot him,' " Sweet said.
But other reform efforts have come under criticism. Joel Keller, a member of BART's board of directors, fumed at a recent meeting about the lack of reports from the Citizen Review Board. After the Grant shooting, BART established the police oversight board and hired an independent police auditor.
“It’s mind-boggling to me that we went through this lengthy process. We set up very simple to follow directions with the assistance of the community that came out of a tragedy,” Keller said at a recent meeting. "It's now a year and a half later, and we have not seen one thing in writing about what they're doing whether they're handling complaints or whether they're doing investigations."
The independent police auditor – and by extension the Citizen Review Board – has opened two investigations and is handling two appeals related to complaints about officer misconduct.
But no one filed a formal complaint about the Hill shooting, according to Smith, the independent police auditor. That means his office won’t have the formal authority to recommend discipline.
A man named Krystof, who organized protests against BART police after the Hill shooting, said he was shocked that the review board did not consider the demonstrations as a complaint.
“It’s hard to believe that the protest we put together doesn't count as a complaint or the testimony we gave in board meeting after board meeting,” Krystof said.
According to the review board's rules, a complaint must be filed by a victim, witness, or a parent or guardian of the victim.
"We are a complaint-driven office with regard to officer-involved shootings," Smith said.
Smith said that he has been monitoring the internal investigation – and that he would issue is own conclusions on the police department findings. He said he asked questions during interviews with officers involved in the shooting.
“If I found if I had disagreement, I’m not going to keep quiet,” Smith said.
Hill's brother has filed a wrongful death suit against BART. No trial date has been set for the lawsuit that alleges that Crowell “unlawfully shot” Hill after the “immediate threat of harm” had passed.