Former DeKalb County police officer Robert Olsen testified Monday that his showdown with unarmed veteran Anthony Hill transpired in about five seconds, an accelerated timeline that generated new questions about his decision to use deadly force.
Chief among them: How did Olsen know that Hill — nude at the time — was a threat to public safety, or his own, as the veteran officer has insisted?
“I believed I was about to get pummeled and pounded” by Hill, who was running towards him, arms outstretched in an aggressive manner, said Olsen, his significant size advantage, roughly five inches and 40 pounds, notwithstanding.
Hill’s fatal shooting in 2015 came amid a national wave of deadly encounters with police by black men, and the Afghanistan War veteran’s admirable backstory only fueled outrage. Olsen was indicted on murder and other charges, a rare instance in Georgia of a police prosecution. His lawyers are seeking to get the charges against the officer dismissed, arguing he has immunity because he acted in self-defense.
Prosecutor Pete Johnson aggressively challenged that contention, noting that the readout from 911 calls reporting Hill’s erratic behavior made no mention of him being armed, dangerous or even aggressive.
“If someone is running through a parking lot and you yell at them to stop and they don’t stop, you can shoot them?” Johnson asked Olsen.
“I did what I did to defend myself,” a defiant Olsen responded.
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Hill, meanwhile, had little time to save himself. Olsen testified on Monday that he fired two shots into the 27-year-old’s midsection one second after commanding him to stop.
Olsen was also confronted with his claim, moments after the shooting, to a fellow DeKalb officer that he shot Hill after the suspect started “pounding on him.” He said he did not remember that conversation.
That officer, Lyn Anderson, said Olsen demonstrated the alleged assault by Hill.
Anderson testified that, considering the outcome, he expected to be told that Hill was armed. He proceeded to talk to two witnesses who contradicted Olsen’s account.
Olsen, said Anderson, had an “oh (expletive) expression on his face, in the moments after the shooting.
He would later learn that the young man he had shot had no history of violence or hostility towards law enforcement. Hill often defended police on Twitter.
Olsen also didn’t know Hill had struggled with medication prescribed to treat his bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders, diagnosed while he was still enlisted in the U.S. Air Force.
“He was just there saying strange things, like ‘The devil is coming,’” maintenance worker Pedro Castillo testified.
Hill first aroused suspicion when he began franctically knocked on the door of the apartment manager at the Chamblee Heights complex, where he was a well-liked tenant.
“Suddenly (Hill) said, ‘Help me, help me,’” Castillo said.
Castillo testified that he and another maintenance worker walked Hill, then wearing shorts and a T-shirt, back to his apartment without incident. They had warned him they would have to call the police if he didn’t comply.
“Good. The police are my friends,” Hill responded, according to Castillo.
Apartment manager Grisselle Torres, who called 911, said she wasn’t worried about the safety of the other residents. “I was concerned about Anthony Hill,” she said.
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Hill had re-emerged from his apartment, naked and hunched over on the ground, by the time Olsen arrived at Chamblee Heights. He could be heard saying, “I love you, mommy,” Castillo testified.
Olsen, according to defense attorney Amanda Clark Palmer, had prepared for a much different scenario based on the information given to him by a 911 operator.
“His training tells him that people who become naked likely are experiencing some type of excited delirium, possibly caused by PCP or some mind-altering substance,” Clark Palmer said.
It’s a defense commonly employed by officers on trial for excessive use of force. Olsen said Hill’s behavior was consistent with the condition, in which sufferers often strip nude, are impervious to pain and exhibit superhuman strength. Excited delirium is not included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders or the latest publication of the International Classification of Diseases but has been accepted by the National Association of Medical Examiners and the American College of Emergency Physicians.
“It’s a situation where he needs to be on high alert,” Clark Palmer said. “His antennae are up, so to speak.”
But Hill, countered the state, was no threat. “He had a mental illness and he was off his meds,” prosecutor Lance Cross said. Hill had been diagnosed with bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders while in the U.S. Air Force.
“He wasn’t hurting anybody,” Cross continued. “He had no weapon. Not a stick. Not a rock.”
Olsen exited his vehicle with his gun drawn, “the thing that escalated the situation to its highest level,” Cross said.
And, according to Olsen, it all went down in five seconds. In that time he saw Hill approaching, pulled his car over, removed his seat belt, got out of the car, brandished his gun, backpedaled around his patrol car, ordered the suspect to stop before finally shooting him. And because Hill was so close to him, Olsen’s other weapons — pepper spray, Taser, baton — were useless, testified defense use of force expert Randall Murphy.
“It eliminated all the intermediate options, with the exception of the firearm,” he said.
But the defense struggled to answer why deadly force was even an option, as demonstrated in exchange between Cross and Murphy.
Cross: “What crime was Anthony Hill committing? Running to the officer? Being naked?”
Murphy: “Not obeying the commands of an officer.”
Cross: “What was he being arrested for?”
Murphy: “It could be disorderly conduct. Public nudity.
Cross: “If someone is committing misdemeanors, advancing towards the officer and not complying, you can shoot to kill? How close can he get before you can shoot to kill?”
Apparently so, according to Murphy.
“Mr. Hill needed to comply with what the officer said and there would’ve been a different outcome,” he said.
The hearing before DeKalb County Superior Court Judge JP Boulee is set to continue Tuesday.
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