Officers who fatally shot a mentally ill man on a Palo Alto street on Christmas Day were justified when they discharged their weapons, the Santa Clara County District Attorney's Office has determined.
Raff, 31, was shot Christmas night four times as he charged at officers with a knife, video from police cameras show. Raff, who recently moved into the transitional mental-health group home La Selva House, had called 911 to report that someone named "Andre Seal" was threatening to harm people. When three officers arrived at the house, at 652 Forest Ave., Raff exited the home and charged police with a knife in his hand.
Video shows that officers told Raff a number of times to drop the knife, which turned out to be a table knife with a rounded tip. Raff can be seen dancing around in the middle of the darkened street in a boxer's stance before bellowing unintelligibly and charging at officers, who had backed away from him and stood by one officer's car. Officer Khalil Tannous fired a Taser at Raff, but it was not effective. Only one of its prongs struck him in the leg. Officers Nicolas Enberg and Zachary Wicht opened fire as Raff continued to run toward them, and he collapsed to the ground a few feet from Enberg.
"The totality of the evidence leads only to the conclusion that William Raff was intent on dying at the hands of police officers on Dec. 25, 2015," prosecutor Charles Gillingham wrote in the report, which was based on an investigation by the Palo Alto Police Department. "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."
The District Attorney's Office said that it has determined that the officers had fired upon Raff after reasonably believing that they would be harmed or killed or that one of them was in imminent danger. The officers had retreated back 50 feet from Raff after he came running from the east side of the house in the dark. Raff was holding the knife in a "pistol grip" as if he was going to stab down at someone prior to running directly at Enberg.
The review found that Raff had deliberately lured the officers to the home with the intention of having them kill him. He had concocted a story that someone at the home was threatening to harm people, which turned out not to be true. The officers believed there was someone at the house who might have been a threat, and they did not know that the person before them with the knife was the person who had called dispatchers.
The whole incident happened in less than eight minutes, from when Raff called 911 to his collapse on Forest Avenue. After the 911 call, a dispatcher called La Selva House and talked to staff, and the staff member said he did not think that Raff was a danger.
But officers did not know of the dispatcher's discussion with the staff member, Kevin McKellar, because of the simultaneous arrival of police while the dispatcher was talking to McKellar, according to the report. The only information officers had received right away is that no one "by that name" of Andre Seal lived at the residence.
The officers commanded Raff several times to put down the knife. But Raff did not comply. He had acted so swiftly and with such surprise that the officers did not have time for a plan of action or further retreat, the report states. During the encounter, Wicht called for a back-up weapon that fires large rubber projectiles and is less lethal, but within moments, Raff was already charging at Enberg.
Enberg was wearing bullet-protective body armor, but it was penetrable by a blade. Enberg told police that he had feared that Raff would stab him in the neck or upper abdomen; Wicht said that Raff had locked eyes with Enberg just before charging at him with the knife in his right hand.
One witness, Joseph Carter, a La Selva House employee, said that when he saw police officers, he had raised his hands and yelled, "Staff, I'm the staff. He has a butter knife, it is a butter knife," he said during a police interview.
Tannous said he heard someone yelling, but he could not make out what was said. He also did not know if that other person was the individual Raff had referred to in the 911 call, he said.
The DA's office did not find that Raff's carrying of a mere table knife had adequate bearing on the officers' actions.
"The fact that the knife used by Raff was a dinnerware knife does not make the situation less threatening for the officers, or their actions less justified. The knife used could be used to inflict a fatal wound or serious injury on the officers whose faces and necks were exposed and whose vests were not designed to protect from knife strikes," the DA's review noted. "None of the officers heard a staff member stating that the knife was a 'butter knife' and if they had, they would not have had the time or ability to assess the credibility of that statement. What the officers saw was a man yelling and charging at them with a knife in his hand, in an attack."
"The officers could not have known and did not know, that William Raff had a history of suicide attempts, the most recent being approximately three weeks earlier," the DA's office stated.
California law permits any person to use deadly force where there is a reasonable need to protect oneself, or another, from an apparent, imminent threat of death or great bodily injury, the DA's office noted.
"Furthermore, it specifically permits police officers to use deadly force when arresting a person who has committed or is committing a violent felony (such as assault in a police officer with a deadly weapon) and the officer has probable cause to believe the person poses a threat of future or imminent death or great bodily injury, either to the officer or to others, Courts do not require officers to wait until they are physically attacked before they are entitled to take action," Gillingham wrote.
How the investigation was conducted
The DA's investigation was based on reports by the Palo Alto Police Department, which included documented interviews with civilian witnesses and officers, audio recordings of the interviews, audio and video of the incident and crime scene details. The review was conducted according to the 2012 "Officer-Involved Guidelines" adopted by the Santa Clara County Police Chiefs' Association, according to the DA's office.
The Police Chiefs' Association guidelines state that the role of the district attorney is to "monitor the police investigation" and "when deemed necessary, perform an independent investigation, separate from that of the police investigation."
Asked why the DA's office determined it would not do a separate investigation from that of the Palo Alto police, Deputy District Attorney James Gibbons-Shapiro said Tuesday that in this case all of the video and audio evidence indicated that officers had acted lawfully. The DA's office was initially present in the first days after the shooting, having sent a deputy district attorney and a DA investigator to monitor the police investigation. They sat in on interviews and ensured that the right steps were being taken to record all of them so that police would not rely only on paper records, he said.
These procedures are the regular practice for the Santa Clara County DA's office. He could not recall an incident that required an independent investigation outside of that of police because of the initial monitoring of police evidence practices, which takes place in each of these cases, he said.
In addition, Palo Alto Police Department policy states that its own investigative unit will look into the department's officer-involved shootings.
A mind unraveling
The picture painted of Raff and the incidents that led to his death show a man who, for at least the previous year, had often been in a dire mental-health crisis. Raff had made two prior attempts to kill himself before the Dec. 25 incident, and he had voiced that he had wanted to harm himself on other occasions. He was hospitalized for his mental condition at least three times, including on Sept. 13 and Oct. 24, 2014, and on Dec. 6, 2015.
Diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder, he had delusions and seizures brought on by attempts to put himself into psychosis, according to the DA's report. He was twice put on a psychiatric hold and hospitalized by Santa Cruz law enforcement agencies and once by police in Westminster, California. In that incident, he believed that his mother was possessed and that he needed to get away from her. He took officers who tried to stop his vehicle on a 3.8-mile chase and deliberately crashed his truck into a wall, according to excerpts form the Westminster police report.
Garold Raff told police that his son had spent Christmas Eve and Christmas Day with him, and he had become concerned for his son's mental state. William Raff had been placed at La Selva House after coming out of a locked psychiatric facility in Fremont. The elder Raff believed that his son was deteriorating and that La Selva was not an appropriate place for him. He should have been in a locked facility, he told police.
On Christmas, Garold Raff had taken his son shopping at a market. William Raff was so agitated that the father called La Selva staff and said he wanted to talk to the CEO to warn that William was not right and that he was significantly agitated and to watch his medication. Raff had recently been given more medication because he had a seizure on Dec. 22. Garold Raff felt that the excess medication he was given might be making him worse, he told police.
Staff at La Selva also told police that Raff was "not totally there" when he arrived to live at La Selva on Dec. 21. Raff was "ramping up" in the intervening days before the 911 call. Raff was flushed red and was staring into space. He told McKellar that he was trying to keep his heart beating. Later, he seemed better. But after McKellar heard Raff calling police, he told Raff that he was safe. McKellar told him that he would have to explain himself for "prank calling the cops." At that time, the phone rang and McKellar told the inquiring police dispatcher that he had a client who was sick and experiencing paranoia and delusions. He did not believe that Raff was a danger.
Another staff member, Joseph Carter, said that Raff had been tapping his chest earlier that day for two to three hours. He and McKellar were concerned that he might try to put himself into "self-psychosis" again as he had a couple of days earlier.
Raff improved after a walk and while music was played at the house, even dancing. But after 9 p.m. while the police dispatcher was calling McKellar, Carter said he saw Raff go into the kitchen and grab a knife out of the drawer.
He asked Raff what he was doing. Raff replied, "I'm outta here."
Raff went out the back door and proceeded to the east side of the residence. Carter followed him outside to try to deescalate the situation.
"William, William stop! William, let's talk! Make a good decision," Carter said he called out to Raff. But Raff ignored him.
The videos from the police cruisers show the officers disappearing into the dark as they approached the home.
"Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" an officer called out as Raff ran out from the east side of the house with a silver object in his hand.
By the time Carter got to the front of the house, about 25 feet behind Raff, he could see that Raff was already in the street. The police had retreated to near their cars, putting a 40- to 50-foot distance between themselves and Raff.
Carter said he raised his hands, and that's when he yelled that he was staff and that Raff was holding a "butter knife."
Raff screamed and did "the Incredible Hulk with the knife, 'rwaah,' and just started beat-feeting toward the cops."
The video shows Raff running toward Enberg. Shots can be heard before he reaches the officer. He appears to be at least 10 feet or more away. But he keeps running. When he falls to the ground, he is close enough that Enberg must turn to the left to keep from being struck by his body.
Police conducting administrative investigation
The Palo Alto Police Department said it is deferring all questions related to the content or details of the DA's findings to the DA's office. The police department had no additional information available for release, but they did express condolences to Raff's family.
"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 department said in a written statement.
The administrative investigation into the shooting is continuing, however, now that the District Attorney's Office has completed their criminal investigation, the department noted. The administrative investigation will include a review of policies, training, tactics and equipment.
"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," department officials wrote.
Raff's family could not immediately be reached for comment. His mother, Tina Cremer, filed a wrongful-death claim against the City of Palo Alto in late March. Her attorney, Michael Haddad, said that the city rejected the claim on May 2. He plans to file a lawsuit in the near future.
"The DA's job is not to determine if the shooting is lawful; it's to determine whether criminal charges are appropriate. It doesn't cover civil claims," Haddad said. "What this boils down to is that the officers at the scene knew that the home was housed by people with mental illness."
When a "thin man acting erratically came out of the house, the officers should have known that he was mentally ill," he said. Then a staff member came out waving his arms and yelling that "it's just a butter knife," he added.
"The officer makes no attempt to take cover or move out of the way. He just stands there and shoots this poor guy with a mental illness. He wasn't wanted for any crime. The most logical inference is that he is mentally ill. Someone who's mentally ill is not a criminal. The shooting was unnecessary," Haddad said.
Watch the video here (Warning: the footage is graphic)