Twenty-seven-year-old Air Force veteran Anthony Hill was naked and unarmed when DeKalb County police officer Robert Olsen shot and killed him outside his apartment in the small Atlanta suburb of Chamblee. On Thursday evening, a grand jury indicted Olsen on six counts, including murder. A warrant is now out for his arrest.
“Justice is served,” an attorney for Hill’s family told reporters, as Hill’s mother and girlfriend wept and bowed their heads.
District Attorney Robert James Jr. had asked the grand jurors in early January to charge Olsen with felony murder, aggravated assault, violation of oath of office and making a false statement. Olsen, who is white, has been on administrative leave since the shooting last March. Witnesses to the shooting had told investigators that the lethal force was not necessary, since Hill was clearly unarmed and had not said anything hostile or threatening. They also questioned why Olsen didn’t first use the pepper spray or Taser he was carrying before using a firearm.
Friends and supporters of Hill, including his girlfriend, Bridget Anderson, have been camping outside the DeKalb County courthouse since Monday, beginning their vigil on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to connect the civil rights struggles of the 1960s to modern day instances of police killing young men of color. Last March, Hill was one of three unarmed black men to be killed by police in a span of just four days. Even when temperatures dipped below freezing, the group kept its spirits up. Several community members and local restaurants donated food and opened their doors for the protesters to warm up.
“We’ve been singing, reading, doing homework, sharing stories,” Atlanta resident Olamide Shabazz, who helped organize the occupation, told ThinkProgress. “The community has been extremely supportive. Every couple of minutes people have been bringing us food, hand warmers, coffee, anything we needed.”
‘Mental illness is not a crime’
In March of last year, a maintenance worker at Hill’s apartment building called the police after seeing Hill banging on neighbors’ doors, crawling, and lying on the ground naked, in the midst of an apparently bipolar episode. When Officer Olsen arrived, police claim, Hill charged at him. Olsen fired and Hill died on the scene. Olsen later told the grand jury that he believed Hill was high on PCP or bath salts at the time, and thus couldn’t be subdued with a Taser or baton.
“If a mental health unit with paramedics, nurses, or even doctors had been sent to help Anthony (instead of an officer with a gun) he would still be alive today,” said Asia Parks with the organization Rise Up Georgia, who organized the vigil for Hill. “Mental illness should not be the reason a person is condemned to death or prison.”
Hill’s family says that at the time of his death he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after being deployed to Afghanistan, as well as bipolar disorder, which led to a medical discharge from the military. Hill had been trying unsuccessfully for months to get a doctor’s appointment at the Department of Veteran Affairs, where he encountered a frustrating, mistake-ridden bureaucracy and long delays. When he finally got medication, said Anderson, it had such bad side effects that he stopped taking it, which contributed to the breakdown on the day of his death.
According to a Washington Post investigation, Hill was one of more than 120 people with mental illness killed by police in 2015, making up a quarter of all people shot and killed by law enforcement last year. As with Hill, officers in most cases were not responding to someone reporting a crime, but rather a relative, neighbor, or bystanders calling for help dealing with a mentally fragile person behaving erratically.
One of the many banners supporters held outside the courthouse on Thursday read, “Mental illness is not a crime.”
‘Anthony’s Law’ and other reforms
Georgia’s laws protecting police officers who are the subject of grand jury investigations are some of the most generous in the country. Unlike others accused of crimes, police officials are allowed to sit in on the entire grand jury process, listen to all the evidence against them and make a statement at the end that can’t be questioned or challenged by prosecutors or grand jurors. Officers also get a 15-day notice when the government decides to seek an indictment against them.
Consequently, Georgia officers who kill civilians are almost never indicted. According to an investigation by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, out of 171 police shootings in Georgia over the past five years, not a single case went to trial. Not one officer has been indicted for killing a civilian in the last five years.
At the same time, the number of police officers indicted across the U.S. is on the rise, but remains low. Over the past several years, while officers have shot and killed hundreds of people, fewer than six per year were indicted for murder or manslaughter. But last year, that number more than doubled.
Now, Atlanta activists tell ThinkProgress they will organize and put pressure on officials to change the laws, both to ensure more accountability for police officers and to make sure such deadly interactions don’t happen in the first place.
“Police officers should not be interacting with people who have a mental illness,” said Shabazz. “I don’t know why they ever thought that was a good idea.”
Some community members are pushing for a measure they’re calling “Anthony’s Law,” a bill to deploy more mental health response units in DeKalb County, while others are pushing to strip Georgia police officers of the special advantages they enjoy during a grand jury process.
“I believe this can be a turning point in the movement for black lives,” Shabazz said of Hill’s case.
Hill’s family also filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in Atlanta’s Federal District Court that accused Officer Olsen of using “illegal and excessive force.” That case is still pending.