Crime & Justice

New video raises questions about fatal Fontana police shooting

A still from the video showing Fontana police officers confronting James Hill in a gas station convenience store before fatally shooting him.
A still from the video showing Fontana police officers confronting James Hill in a gas station convenience store before fatally shooting him.
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The grainy video runs for nearly nine minutes. It shows James Hall, 47, just inside the automatic sliding doors of a brightly lit Chevron gas station minimart in Fontana about 4 a.m. He starts to move toward the doors then stops and backs up. Moments later, a Fontana police officer appears at the door.

This is the beginning of a video that is prompting new questions about the 2015 fatal police shooting of Hall, who was legally blind and had been diagnosed with schizophrenia. The questions come amid growing pressure on police departments to make more use of mental health professionals when responding to calls involving people who are mentally ill.

The video comes from gas station security cameras and was provided by Attorney Ben Meiselas, who represents Hall’s family in a wrongful death lawsuit against the Fontana Police Department.

For nearly four minutes, officers stand at the front door of the min-mart with guns pointed inside. Hall is out of sight of the camera. One has a police dog, often used to subdue suspects without resorting to deadly force. Another has a shotgun that fires non-lethal beanbag rounds or rubber bullets. But this encounter would end up with Hall dead.

For about a minute, a camera shows Hall scrambling up and down the back aisle of the mini-mart next to refrigerators. At one point, the police dog is chasing him. At another an officer comes into view and follows him toward another part of the store.

It is in an area where people pour their coffee and pick up donuts that the deadly confrontation occurs. Hall is next to a countertop with a coffee brewer. Officers are seen in the bottom portion of the screen and on the upper right.  At least ten police officers are present.

One would open fire.

(Warning: The video contains graphic images.)

An initial statement from the Fontana Police Department at the time said officers were responding to a 911 call reporting a possible robbery in progress involving a man with a knife. The statement said officers went into the store to keep the clerk safe. They found Hall with a knife in one hand and a rock in the other, according to police.

“Officers attempted to talk the suspect into surrendering however he advanced on officers,” according to the statement, dated November 22, 2015 – the day of the shooting.  

Its unclear which officers fires, but Hall is seen stumbling then falling to the ground. It is about seven and a half minutes after police arrive.

The grainy video shows something in his hands but it’s unclear what. One thing is clear – Hall was not advancing on officers as the Fontana Police Department has maintained.

“He is cowering, he is frightened,” said Meiselas. “He is scared when they open fire.”

Fontana police had no comment on the video but issued a statement Thursday:

“We can all recognize this was a tragic and unfortunate event for everyone involved. As such, our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and anyone impacted by this incident.”

Fontana police did not respond to calls for comment on whether it uses mental evaluation teams.  The San Bernardino County Department of Behavioral Health has crisis health teams available to police departments.

The LAPD has 32 teams that pair officers with a mental health clinician. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently approved a plan to increase the number of such teams at the sheriff’s department from ten to 23. In Los Angeles, 85 mental health teams operate at various times in police departments around the county.

The tragedy in the shooting of Hall is that he had told his family two weeks earlier that he’d gone to Fontana police headquarters to tell them he was hearing voices, according to Meiselas.

He argued Hall was cornered and presenting no immediate danger – a perfect time to call in mental health professionals.

“In situations like this, time is on their side,” he said.

The San Bernardino District Attorney is investigating the case to determine if the officer was justified in shooting Hall. The Fontana Police Department also conducts a review to determine if the officer violated any agency policies and whether he should be disciplined.

The department did not respond to calls, so it’s unclear whether that review has been completed.