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Video shows police cornering mentally ill man and fatally shooting him: 'This was an execution'

Video shows fivepolice officers cornering a mentally ill man before shooting him dead in a convenience store. Warning: The video may be disturbing to some viewers.

Graphic surveillance video released this week shows a throng of Fontana police officers surrounding a legally blind and mentally ill man in a convenience store before an officer opens fire, killing him.

The muted video of the Nov. 22, 2015, incident was made public by lawyers for the man's family and marked the latest in a series of police shootings captured on video over the last few years that has generated debate about whether officers are too quick to use lethal force.

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The case also highlights the struggles of law enforcement agencies in dealing with mentally ill people. Several agencies, including the Los Angeles Police Department, have been developing ways to reduce the number of violent encounters, An LAPD study released last year found that more than a third of the people shot by Los Angeles police in 2015 had documented signs of mental illness.

Several independent experts on law enforcement tactics who reviewed the Fontana tape for The Times said Thursday there were some questions that required further examination, including whether the officers faced an immediate threat when they opened fire.

The San Bernardino County district attorney is now reviewing the shooting.

The video shows multiple police officers cornering James Hall, 47, in the back of a Chevron gas station mini-mart, where police and the man engage in a brief standoff.

Hall appears to shift his weight between two counters near a soda fountain just before an officer shoots and he collapses to the tiled floor.

The grainy surveillance images appear to partly contradict the initial account of the Fontana Police Department, which described Hall as armed with a knife and advancing on officers before police shot him dead.

Lawyers for Hall's family released the video online Wednesday, more than a month after filing a state civil rights and wrongful-death lawsuit against Fontana and its police department. The complaint also names 12 Fontana police officers allegedly involved in the shooting.

"It's a disturbing video indictment of the officers," said attorney Mark Geragos, whose firm is representing Hall's relatives.

"The video puts the lie to the obviously falsified police account of what happened. In fact, this was an execution," he said.

A statement from the Fontana Police Department on Thursday said the officers responded to a reported armed robbery and  alleged that Hall was armed with a rock and a knife.

Citing the civil litigation, officials declined to provide further details.

"With this said, we can all recognize this was a tragic and unfortunate event for everyone involved. As such, our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and anyone impacted by this incident," the statement said. "We have every confidence in the investigative process and await the conclusion."

According to the department's initial account, police were called after the convenience store's clerk reported a possible robbery in progress and indicated that the suspect was "armed with a knife."

Officers arrived at the station near Sierra and Slover avenues about 4:15 a.m. Police said Hall had a knife in one hand and a large rock in the other.

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Authorities said police tried to coax Hall into surrendering but alleged that he advanced toward officers, prompting the police to shoot.

The lawsuit filed by Geragos and his firm offers a different account, contending that Hall, who was legally blind and suffered from schizoaffective disorder, was outside the convenience store but went in at some point to browse. The complaint says Hall was known to be peaceful and that community members were "fully aware of his disabilities."

In the video, an officer is seen approaching with a drawn handgun, and four more police officers arrive, many drawing their weapons. One of the officers also had a police dog.

At different points in the video, Hall appears to have a small item in his hands, but it is difficult to distinguish in the grainy image. At times, he also appears to be empty-handed.

One of the officers fired a shot toward Hall's general direction, according to the suit. The police dog was also released, and one of the officers unsheathed his stun gun, the suit alleges.

Officers closed in on the man, and the combined effect startled Hall: "He ran to the rear of the convenience store and cowered there," according to the suit.

Near the row of soda fountains and adjacent to a wall of refrigerators, Hall and police had a brief standoff. The video does not show him lunging toward any of the surrounding police officers.

One of the officers shot at Hall, who fell to the floor. About 10 officers swarmed with their weapons still drawn.

The lawsuit filed in San Bernardino County Superior Court alleges the police escalated a peaceful encounter with Hall into a conflict that ended in the unlawful use of deadly force. The family's attorneys, in the suit, argue that the police acted "in reckless and callous disregard for the constitutional rights" of Hall.

Some policing experts expressed concern about the shooting.

"I didn't see any immediate threat to officers that justified the use of deadly force," said Geoffrey Alpert, a University of South Carolina criminology professor and expert on police use of force.

"There are going to be a lot of questions about this shooting," said Ed Obayashi, a Northern California sheriff's deputy and a lawyer who advises counties on the use of force.

He said the video shows some efforts by officers to use less lethal force in the form of a projectile launcher and a police canine unit. Obayashi believes the projectile launcher was discharged during the video and the dog at one point moved toward the man but then moved away.

"The canine is always the best option when it comes to less-lethal force, and the question is why not use the canine to take him down? They deployed the canine at one point and then the dog backed off," he said.

Obayashi agreed with Alpert that "the video shows no evidence that the suspect ever advanced toward the officers." But both emphasized that videos often don't show the entire incident and that it will be up to investigators to determine whether the officers' actions were justified.

Seth Stoughton, a University of South Carolina law professor and former police officer, said another key question is whether police knew Hall had mental health issues.

Several fatal police shootings generated national attention last year, including in El Cajon, Fresno and Charlotte, N.C. Those and other incidents sparked protests.

Running nearly nine minutes, the Fontana video shows different angles within the convenience store, but the time stamp in the lower left corner of the footage indicates that the entire incident lasted more than 17 minutes. Portions of the final standoff at the back of the convenience store were not recorded, leaving out minutes-long segments.

Geragos, the family's lawyer, said the video had not been altered or edited by his firm.  The store's surveillance cameras were motion-activated, recording only when enough movement triggered the camera, he said.

He faulted the officers for not using other nonlethal measures to get Hall out of the convenience store.

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"This is a classic example of doing the opposite of what you are trained to do," Geragos said.

Twitter: @MattHjourno

Twitter: @LAcrimes

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UPDATES:

2:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional background information and comments from a family attorney.

12:05 p.m. This article has been updated with commentary from experts on police use of force.

Jan. 19, 11:10 a.m. This article has been updated with a statement from Fontana police.

This article was originally posted Jan. 18 at 9:55 p.m.

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