Minutes before two Palo Alto officers fatally shot a mentally ill man on Dec. 25, 2015, an employee at the mental health facility where he lived allegedly rushed out and warned police that the man, William David Raff, was armed with a butter knife and he begged them not to shoot, according to an attorney who has filed a claim on behalf of Raff's mother.
Oakland-based civil-rights law firm Haddad & Sherwin filed the claim for unspecified monetary damages on behalf of Raff's mother, Tina Cremer, on Monday afternoon, lead attorney Michael Haddad told the Weekly on Tuesday.
The claim alleges wrongful death, conscious pain and suffering, assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence, intentional torts and civil rights violations. They ask for damages related to loss of support both economic and non-economic, medical, funeral and burial expenses and other causes.
Raff, 31, who had schizophrenia, was living at a residential outpatient mental health facility on the 600 block of Forest Avenue, run by the nonprofit Momentum for Mental Health. He allegedly called police dispatch on Christmas night to report a disturbance.
Police officers have said that Raff jumped out at them from the dark and waved a knife while shrieking unintelligibly. Raff allegedly charged at the officers and two officers, later identified as Nicholas Enberg and Zachary Wicht, fired their pistols at him. Raff was taken to a nearby hospital, but he died.
The claim alleges that police knew the Forest Avenue address was a group home for mentally ill persons and also that they were likely to encounter someone with a mental illness. The officers are trained in de-escalation, use of communication techniques in crisis situations and modes for keeping themselves tactically safe in order to give the disturbed person time to calm down, but they failed to use or adequately employ that training, according to the claim.
A dispatcher had allegedly called the home after Raff made his 911 call and spoke with a group home staff member. That person assured the police that everything was safe within the home. The staff member allegedly told the dispatcher that Raff was having mental health problems and staff were addressing his issues, according to the claim. But officers who went to the home and displayed weapons allegedly acted in a threatening manner, which inflamed the situation rather than de-escalated it, according to the claim.
"A large staff member came out of the house and told police 'I'm staff. Don't shoot. It's only a butter knife,'" Haddad said. But police ignored the staff member, he said.
Haddad also disputed police claims that Raff was so close to the officers that they were at risk of being stabbed.
"He was 30 to 40 feet away. Even if it was closer, it doesn't matter because it was a harmless butter knife," he said.
The claim also accuses, but does not specify, the police department of unreasonably causing a delay of emergency treatment to Raff that might have saved his life.
Palo Alto City Attorney Molly Stump said in an email: "We generally don't comment on active claims/litigation, except to say that we will process the claim according to our regular procedures."
But police spokesman Lt. Zach Perron said after the shooting that video recordings taken by police cruisers show the incident from beginning to end. Raff was so close when he was shot that one of the officers had to move out of the way to avoid being struck by his falling body, he said. Police have said they did not know Raff was holding a butter knife but only saw the flash of metal in the darkened street.
The claim also accused the police department of covering up or conspiring to cover up illegal or unconstitutional conduct. The shooting is being investigated by the Santa Clara County District Attorney's office for any possible wrongdoing, the DA's office has confirmed.
Haddad said that he believes police claims are suspect in part because the department has refused to release the video tapes of the shooting, which would presumably exonerate them. The police department has refused to allow attorneys and Raff's parents to view the recordings, he said. Police have also denied reporters access to view the videos.
Cremer's attorneys have made a formal demand in the claim for the city to preserve all evidence, including the video recordings and any dispatch tapes, interviews and written records.
The city can choose to offer a settlement or reject the claim. Cremer would then have the choice of filing a lawsuit.