Twenty-seven-year-old Air Force veteran Anthony Hill was naked and unarmed when DeKalb County police officer Robert Olsen shot and killed him outside his apartment in the small Atlanta suburb of Chamblee. On Thursday evening, a grand jury indicted Olsen on six counts, including murder. A warrant is now out for his arrest.
“Justice is served,” an attorney for Hill’s family told reporters, as Hill’s mother and girlfriend wept and bowed their heads.
District Attorney Robert James Jr. had asked the grand jurors in early January to charge Olsen with felony murder, aggravated assault, violation of oath of office and making a false statement. Olsen, who is white, has been on administrative leave since the shooting last March. Witnesses to the shooting had told investigators that the lethal force was not necessary, since Hill was clearly unarmed and had not said anything hostile or threatening. They also questioned why Olsen didn’t first use the pepper spray or Taser he was carrying before using a firearm.
Friends and supporters of Hill, including his girlfriend, Bridget Anderson, have been camping outside the DeKalb County courthouse since Monday, beginning their vigil on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to connect the civil rights struggles of the 1960s to modern day instances of police killing young men of color. Last March, Hill was one of three unarmed black men to be killed by police in a span of just four days. Even when temperatures dipped below freezing, the group kept its spirits up. Several community members and local restaurants donated food and opened their doors for the protesters to warm up.
“We’ve been singing, reading, doing homework, sharing stories,” Atlanta resident Olamide Shabazz, who helped organize the occupation, told ThinkProgress. “The community has been extremely supportive. Every couple of minutes people have been bringing us food, hand warmers, coffee, anything we needed.”
‘Mental illness is not a crime’
In March of last year, a maintenance worker at Hill’s apartment building called the police after seeing Hill banging on neighbors’ doors, crawling, and lying on the ground naked, in the midst of an apparently bipolar episode. When Officer Olsen arrived, police claim, Hill charged at him. Olsen fired and Hill died on the scene. Olsen later told the grand jury that he believed Hill was high on PCP or bath salts at the time, and thus couldn’t be subdued with a Taser or baton.
“If a mental health unit with paramedics, nurses, or even doctors had been sent to help Anthony (instead of an officer with a gun) he would still be alive today,” said Asia Parks with the organization Rise Up Georgia, who organized the vigil for Hill. “Mental illness should not be the reason a person is condemned to death or prison.”
Hill’s family says that at the time of his death he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after being deployed to Afghanistan, as well as bipolar disorder, which led to a medical dischargefrom the military. Hill had been trying unsuccessfully for months to get a doctor’s appointment at the Department of Veteran Affairs, where he encountered a frustrating, mistake-ridden bureaucracy and long delays. When he finally got medication, said Anderson, it had such bad side effects that he stopped taking it, which contributed to the breakdown on the day of his death.
According to a Washington Post investigation, Hill was one of more than 120 people with mental illness killed by police in 2015, making up a quarter of all people shot and killed by law enforcement last year. As with Hill, officers in most cases were not responding to someone reporting a crime, but rather a relative, neighbor, or bystanders calling for help dealing with a mentally fragile person behaving erratically.
One of the many banners supporters held outside the courthouse on Thursday read, “Mental illness is not a crime.”