PALO ALTO (CBS SF) – Two Palo Alto police officers who shot and killed a man who charged at them screaming with a 9-inch kitchen knife on Christmas Day last year were cleared of criminal wrongdoing by the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office Tuesday, which found that the officers had acted lawfully in self-defense.
In a 31-page report on the shooting released Tuesday (.pdf), Deputy District Attorney Charles Gillingham wrote that Officers Zachary Wicht and Nicolas Enberg were justified in firing their pistols at 31-year-old William Raff and Officer Khalil Tannous was justified in firing a Taser as they had cause to reasonably believe Raff would harm them.
Along with the report, the district attorney’s office released dash cam video of the shooting and about a minute preceding it.
Raff was shot outside of a group home for people suffering mental illness at about 9:20 p.m. on Dec. 25. The officers provided first aid and he was taken to a hospital, but he was pronounced dead there.
Raff himself had called the officers to La Selva House, a transitional housing facility for people suffering from mental illness and substance abuse problems. La Selva is an open facility and patients are not restricted from leaving.
Raff had been in a locked facility prior to arriving at La Selva on Dec. 21, just a few days before the shooting. Raff’s father told investigators that Raff had been diagnosed with Schizoaffective disorder in his 20s and had attempted suicide twice.
Once, after a fight with his mother on Oct. 24, 2014, Raff got into his truck and drove away, crashing into a brick wall while not wearing his seat belt. He told police that he thought his mother was possessed and needed to get away from her, according to the district attorney’s report.
Less than a month before he was shot, on Dec. 6, 2015, Williams stabbed himself in the neck three times.
After that he was placed in a locked psychiatric facility in Fremont, but then moved to La Selva House. The day after he arrived, the staff there had to call 911 because he had a seizure, possibly because of excessive medication, his father told investigators.
Raff was somewhat responsive to medication, but it had mixed results. The medication made Raff not feel like himself, so he resisted taking it.
His father told investigators that he spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at La Selva House and told the staff there that he could see Raff deteriorating. He thought a locked facility would be more appropriate for his son.
On Christmas morning, Raff’s father took him to a market and was concerned because he seemed agitated. Later, Raff wouldn’t speak with him, but he called later to apologize, and when asked why he didn’t want to talk, Raff was evasive and mumbled something about suicide.
His father warned staff that Raff wasn’t right and they needed to watch his medication.
Staff members noticed Raff was flushed, red and staring into space that night. At about 9:15 p.m., Raff called 911 dispatchers.
“Hi, um, it’s an emergency. Uh, I need to uh, I need you to come to 652 Forest Ave.,” Raff told the dispatcher, according to transcripts of the 911 call.
“Okay, what’s going on there?” the dispatcher responded.
Raff: “Uh, there’s someone that’s really violent. That, that uh, that intends to do harm to others.”
The dispatcher asked what the person’s name was, and Raff responded, “Uh, man named uh, Andre, Andre Seal. Yeah.”
“And what did they say they were gonna do?” the dispatcher said.
“They said they were gonna try to harm someone,” Raff said.
Dispatcher: “Okay, and they told you that?”
Dispatcher: “And what did they say they were going to do? Did they give a specific ideation or?”
“Uh, no. But it’s an emergency.” Raff said.
The dispatcher sent officers Wicht, Enberg and Tannous to the area. When Tannous was assigned, he was in his patrol car parked near the Police Department, about to go inside to have dinner with his colleagues.
He had been called to La Selva House before for welfare checks and for psychiatric holds for people who had become a danger to themselves or others. As he drove the few blocks over to La Selva House, he thought about the previous times he’d been there and wondered about the lack of details provided by his dispatcher.
After talking to Raff, the dispatcher had called La Selva House back and talked to a staff member there who said Raff wasn’t dangerous and that police intervention probably wasn’t necessary.
But by that point, the officers had already arrived, and the dispatcher told the employee officers would probably want to speak to him anyway. The dispatcher did not relay this information to the officers, telling them only that no one by the name of “Andre Seal” lived there.
Wicht was the first officer to arrive, at 9:22 p.m. Tannous and Enberg arrived moments later.
Christmas lights were strung on the surrounding houses, and neighbors were out walking the suburban streets to admire them. No one flagged down the officers as they arrived, no one seemed alarmed and no one said anything to them. The front of La Selva House was dark.
Raff was still inside as the officers pulled up. A staff member saw Raff grab a knife from a kitchen drawer and asked him what he was doing. Raff said, “I am outta here.”
Raff went out the back door and started walking down the east side of the house. The staff member followed him, and tried to get him to stop.
“William, William stop! William, let’s talk! Make a good decision,” the staffer called out to him.
The officers got out of their cars and started walking toward the house. They could hear leaves crinkling. As the sound got louder and quicker a man ran out and from the side of the house screaming.
They saw a flash of silver in Raff’s hand. The officers called for backup and retreated toward their cars. Raff walked into the middle of the street, dancing back and forth like a boxer.
The staff member following Raff raised his hands and yelled out toward the officers, “Staff, I’m the staff,” and then, “He has a butter knife, it is a butter knife.”
Officers Wicht and Enberg pulled their handguns and Tannous took out his Taser as Raff hopped from foot to foot in the middle of the street, waving his arm around.
“Woah woah woah woah,” Tannous said.
“Put the knife down,” another officer can be heard on the video saying.
“Hey, hey come on, put down the knife, drop the knife,” an officer said.
Then, more violently, “Drop the knife!”
Raff ran toward Enberg screaming, flailing his arms at his elbows.
Endberg and Wicht fired 10 rounds and Tannous discharged his Taser but missed. Raff collapsed at their feet. An autopsy found he had been shot four times.
As backup arrived, Raff was lying on the ground with Enberg holding his head as the officers provided first aid. Other people from La Selva House had come outside, and one said, “you didn’t have to shoot him; all he had was a butter knife.”
Raff was taken by ambulance to Stanford Hospital, where he died.
“The totality of the evidence leads only to the conclusion that William Raff was intent on dying at the hands of police officers on December 25, 2015,” Gillingham wrote in his report.
“In the months and years leading up to the incident it was clear that Raff suffered from devastating psychiatric issues and had attempted to commit suicide on multiple occasions. William Raff called 911 that night to create a fake emergency and draw an armed response from the police. Raff then committed suicide by attacking the officers, who shot him in self-defense,” Gillingham wrote.
Palo Alto police released a statement following the release of the report Tuesday.
“We have tremendous sympathy for the Raff family and William’s friends and loved ones. We are also mindful of the lasting effect this incident has had on our personnel, the independent witnesses who observed what occurred, and the staff at the transitional residential program at which Mr. Raff was a resident,” the statement said.
“The administrative investigation into this incident is continuing, now that the district attorney’s office has completed their criminal investigation. The administrative investigation will include a review of relevant policies, training, tactics, and equipment,” the statement said.
“At the conclusion of the administrative investigation, we will submit it to our Independent Police Auditor for review. They will also receive all audio and video recordings associated with the case. The Independent Police Auditor will make public comments at the appropriate time about the incident, the response of our personnel, and the administrative investigation itself,” the statement said.
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