The family of a 17-year-old girl shot and killed by Fullerton police after a traffic stop in Anaheim earlier this month has filed a legal claim against the city.
S. Lee Merritt, the attorney for the family of Hannah Williams, said Friday that the claim — a precursor to a lawsuit — preserves the family’s right to sue for damages. Family members are likely to make a decision about whether to file a lawsuit after investigations commissioned by the family and Orange County prosecutors are completed, Merritt said. They have two years to file a suit.
Information provided so far suggests that the officer involved in the shooting failed to follow proper procedure during the stop that resulted in Williams’ death, Merritt said.
“Looking at the evidence now available, I’m confident that the reason this situation unfolded the way that it did — the reason it escalated into a situation where deadly force became necessary — is because the officer didn’t follow proper protocol,” Merritt said.
A spokesman for the Fullerton Police Department said the department does not comment on pending litigation or active investigations. The department is conducting an internal review of the actions by the officer, who has not been identified.
Williams’ family has acknowledged that she might have been trying to hurt herself when she encountered the Fullerton K-9 officer near the Kraemer Boulevard on-ramp to the 91 Freeway the evening of July 5.
When the officer tried to stop Williams for a possible speeding violation, she struck his patrol vehicle, then made a U-turn into oncoming traffic before coming to a stop facing the wrong way, authorities said.
Williams then exited her vehicle holding a replica weapon that resembled a Beretta handgun, police said. Body camera video released last week shows her pointing the fake gun at the officer before he opens fire.
But while the officer may have been justified in shooting Williams once he confronted her, that doesn’t mean the confrontation was unavoidable, Merritt said.
Because the officer thought that Williams had intentionally rammed his vehicle, he should have followed protocol for conducting a felony traffic stop, which includes exiting his vehicle, taking cover and calling for backup, Merritt said.
“This officer instead walked directly up to the car as if it was a normal traffic stop, came around a blind corner, and was confronted with what he believed to be a dangerous situation,” the attorney said.
As a result, he said, the officer thought he was facing off against an armed suspect, rather than a teenager suffering a mental health crisis.
“If he had followed proper protocol, he likely would have had an opportunity to perceive that, and there’s a chance Hannah could have gotten the help she needed, as opposed to being shot to death,” Merritt said.
The family also has concerns about whether Williams received timely and appropriate medical attention. The body camera video shows authorities immediately rendering aid, but Williams remained handcuffed on the pavement after the weapon she was holding was identified as a replica.
The teen, who worked as a lifeguard at Knott’s Berry Farm, died at a hospital.
In the days immediately following the shooting, family members publicly appealed for information, saying they had been provided few details of Williams’ final moments, including why she was shot.
The Orange County district attorney’s office said last week that it was reviewing how its team investigates shootings by law enforcement officers in an effort to more quickly release information to family members and the public.