Police in southern California are facing questions over the fatal shooting of a 17-year-old girl, who her family says was killed for no reason after a minor traffic incident near her home on Friday evening.
An officer from the Fullerton police department shot Hannah Williams around 7pm on Friday less than two miles from her home in Anaheim, about 25 miles south of Los Angeles. Authorities on Tuesday declined to say what happened prior to the shooting or why the officer fired at her, but claimed that a “replica gun” was “recovered at the scene”.
Representatives for the family of Williams said the teenager did not pose a threat, that the police had given them no information about finding a toy gun, and that law enforcement was disparaging her in the media.
Williams’ family gathered outside Anaheim city hall on Tuesday, some of them too distraught to speak, as Williams’ godmother, Lanette Campbell, read a statement.
“Hannah was a beloved daughter, sister, niece, granddaughter, friend. She had her whole life ahead of her. We’re seeking answers as to truly what occurred,” said Campbell, noting that Williams was dedicated to community service and volunteering.
When some reporters shouted questions at the family about the replica weapon police claimed to have found, Campbell said, “You have more information than we do.” Rev Jarrett Maupin, a family spokesman, said it was unclear if the replica even belonged to her, adding, “She was unarmed. A fake gun is a fake gun.”
“We want the public to know, right away, how many times our daughter was shot and whether or not she was shot in the back. Why, Lord?” said Hannah’s father, Benson Williams, in a statement shared with the Guardian. “We want to know why police felt the need to shoot and kill a 17-year-old unarmed teen girl,” he added.
The shooting is under investigation by both Anaheim and Fullerton police departments as well as the Orange county district attorney’s office.
Williams’ family has called for the police involved to be suspended without pay and has demanded that officials clarify the circumstances of the shooting.
The Orange county district attorney’s office said Tuesday that the Fullerton officer was on-duty and in uniform and was driving on the freeway when he observed the 17-year-old driving at a “high rate of speed”, adding, “At some point, the two vehicles made physical contact.” The office did not provide details on the nature of the contact and has not alleged that she was holding the replica or pointing it.
A local highway was closed for hours after the shooting, Anaheim police said in a statement on Friday, thanking local highway patrol for “helping with the mess on the freeway”. The statement described Williams as a “female suspect” and said she died at a hospital.
The Anaheim police department initially said that its officers recovered an “item appearing to be a handgun”, but could not provide more details until it was examined forensically.
The Anaheim police department’s role is to “investigate any criminal actions” by Williams, Sergeant Daron Wyatt told the Guardian in an email on Tuesday morning. “Since she is deceased, it is a moot point”, he added. Wyatt said he had no further updates, since “the interview of the involved officer hasn’t taken place yet”.
It’s unclear why the officer had not yet been questioned four days after the killing.
Wyatt did not respond to questions about what was recovered on the scene, and Fullerton police and the Orange county district attorney did not respond to questions.
Williams was working as a lifeguard at Knott’s Berry Farm, a popular theme park in the region, and was enrolled in online classes this summer, according to Maupin. “She was a positive young lady.”
Her family is originally from Phoenix, Arizona, and has lived in the area for about a year, he said. She leaves behind an older sister and two younger siblings.
Maupin said the family was distraught to see police maligning William’s character and presenting her as a “suspect”, without much clarification.
“This is a kid that is loved and respected by her family and valued by the community. The criminalization of Hannah and the attempted demonization of her is a shame.”
The killing by police in Orange county has reignited concerns about brutality by law enforcement in a region that has a history of excessive force scandals. The American Civil Liberties Union reported in 2017 that the local Anaheim police department used excessive force at a rate that far outpaced law enforcement agencies in similar cities. The county sheriff’s department was also accused of brutalizing an intoxicated man in an incident caught on camera last year.
Williams’ family did not trust the Fullerton police to conduct a proper inquiry, Maupin said. “The local authorities are not capable of handling this situation. How can Fullerton police investigate itself?”
The family is expected to see Williams’ body later on Tuesday, he said, adding that her loved ones were struggling to deal with the police’s representation of her as a criminal: “They feel the need like any parent would – to defend the integrity of their child.”