California police on Friday released body-camera footage documenting a Fullerton officer fatally shooting 17-year-old Hannah Williams, in a case that has left the southern California community in deep shock.
The video, released on Friday, does not clearly show what happened in the moment the girl was shot on 5 July and does not capture audio of the firing. But the Fullerton police department said the footage showed her in a “shooting stance”, holding a gun that the officer later discovered was fake. An attorney for Williams’ family who saw the raw video said he believed the girl was pointing the toy weapon.
The footage shows the girl falling to the ground and the officer, who has not been named, shouting “don’t fucking move” as she rolled on the pavement. It documents the officer commanding her to roll on her stomach, which she did. A witness, who was an off-duty officer, appears on the scene, and the first officer handcuffed the girl as she lay face down and pleaded, “I can’t breathe”, and “Can you help me, please?”
One of the officers appears to collect a weapon, notes that it appeared to be a “replica”.
As the officers attended to the girl, requested paramedics and tried to provide emergency medical care, she continued to ask for help repeating, “I can’t breathe, sir.”
Williams was shot in the leg and chest. Police said she was later pronounced dead at a hospital.
Following the release of the footage, Lee Merritt, the Williams family’s attorney, questioned why the officers handcuffed the girl and left her handcuffed in a critical moment.
“She was clearly not a threat. She was clearly begging for help. She was responsive,” he said. “There was some unnecessary and undue delay” he said.
A police spokesman for the Fullerton police department said it was “standard practice” to handcuff someone in this type of scenario. “An officer has no idea how badly injured someone is, if they possess another weapon,” Jon Radus wrote in an email, adding, “The possible bad scenarios are endless.”
Williams was shot last Friday evening, after leaving her house in the family’s rental car. Police have offered few details of what happened before the shooting, but say Williams “intentionally collided” with the officer’s vehicle.
The alleged crash was not caught on camera. The footage starts when the officer turns on the body cam after both vehicles have come to a halt and exits his vehicle with his weapon drawn.
It remains unclear what led up to the incident. In an audio recording of the 911 call, Williams’ distraught father can be heard reporting her missing. He tells a dispatcher she had left with the family’s rental car. When the dispatcher asked if he was worried she would hurt herself, he said, “I am,” adding that she hadn’t specifically said anything, but she was on antidepressants and her decision to leave with the car was “out of the blue”.
At a news conference on Friday after the release of the footage, Williams’ parents and older sister stood silently while Merritt explained that the family had not watched the video, because it was too painful. The attorney also told reporters that Williams had “struggled with some mental health concerns”, but said she had been doing well recently and appeared to be in good spirits before her death.
“We as a nation just have to do better treating mental illness – identifying it and responding to it,” Merritt said, noting that he believed the officer “had very little time” to make a decision. But, he added, “We can’t exonerate him at this point.”
The lawyer said he believed the officer should have de-escalated the situation on the freeway, and waited for backup if there was some kind of standoff, instead of coming at her with his gun drawn.
Williams’ family has decried the flow of information from authorities. Her parents told the Guardian police initially told them that there was some kind of traffic accident and argument between their daughter and an officer, but refused to provide further details about the circumstances of her death.
The parents and the attorney have also criticized law enforcement for blindsiding them, sharing updates with the media before the family, and failing to communicate with them over the last week.
Williams’ relatives sat down with the Guardian on Thursday, and said they wanted the teenager, who turned 17 in April, to be remembered as a bubbly and energetic girl with a wide range of passions.
The family moved to Orange county from Arizona about a year ago, and Williams quickly excelled as a junior at her new high school, becoming captain of the soccer team. She also recently began teaching herself piano and had a YouTube channel where she posted videos of her playing soccer and her everyday life with her younger cousin.
Williams’ parents said their daughter was overjoyed to get her first paid job as a lifeguard at Knott’s Berry Farm, the popular theme park, and that within a few days of work, she had already helped save a woman’s life.
Nyla Williams, her 19-year-old sister, who is in the US air force, said her sister talked about following in her footsteps and enlisting, adding, “She was always there for you. She was the kindest person I’ve ever met.”
The day of her death, her parents said she had relatives in town and Williams was excited to go out with the family in Hollywood.
Hannah leaves behind two younger siblings, a five-year-old brother and nine-year-old sister who have both been struggling to comprehend the news.