After Atlanta murders, greater scrutiny of police killing of Asian-American man in Poconos

“You have a victim of gun violence, police brutality, and you also have a youth that is suffering from mental health [crisis]."

  • Laura Benshoff/WHYY

(Philadelphia) — On December 30, Christian Hall,19, was killed by Pennsylvania State Police in Monroe County during a suicidal episode. The Chinese-American adoptee went through a protracted standoff, and was carrying a non-lethal weapon. Police recently ruled the killing was justified.

Updates ran in local papers, and circulated on social media, but the story did not break through onto a national stage.

As recent attacks against Asian-Americans have pushed incidents of racism and violence experienced by the community into the spotlight, activists are hoping to use that attention to raise the profile of Hall’s case around Pennsylvania — connecting it to other high-profile deaths at the hands of police.

“We just felt that people should know more about this incident,” said Sarah Kim, one of the founders of Philly Asians 4 Liberation & Mutual Solidarity (PALMS), a group which recently held a vigil in South Philadelphia for Hall.

On the day he died, Hall called 9-1-1 to report a possible suicide attempt. The young man then walked Route 33 where it crosses I-80 in Monroe County. Several state troopers arrived, and blocked the area off while trying to talk him down from the concrete ledge. Police released edited dashcam footage from two vehicles, and there is also bystander video.

After an hour and a half, Hall walked haltingly towards them with his arms overhead. He carried what appeared to be a gun in his left hand, and the troopers opened fire. The first time, they missed him. When he continued shuffling forward, they shot again, killing Hall. The weapon turned out to be an airsoft pellet gun.

Last week, the Monroe County District Attorney’s office announced it had cleared the officers of wrongdoing.

The use of deadly force in this case was justified, according to the DA’s office, because the officers did not know the weapon Hall carried wasn’t lethal, and because he failed to follow officers’ orders. “It’s a testament to the troopers that they didn’t shoot sooner,” said First Assistant District Attorney Michael Mancuso during a press conference.

The family and its supporters reject this decision, saying it amounts to blaming the victim.

“You have a victim of gun violence, police brutality, and you also have a youth that is suffering from mental health [crisis],” said Kim. She connected those circumstances to the death of Walter Wallace, Jr., a Black man with known mental illness who was killed by Philadelphia police last summer.

In the case of Hall, relations between law enforcement, his family, and activists have appeared strained. During last week’s press conference, Mancuso shared that the family had rebuffed invitations to help the investigation. He also accused the Hall’s attorneys, Ben Crump and Devon Jacob, of spreading false narratives.

The previous month, the family held a press conference outside of the state police barracks in Stroudsburg, saying they planned to file a federal civil suit.

Attempts to reach the family were not successful by publication. Crump has represented the families in many high-profile police shooting cases, and along with Jacob is representing George Floyd’s family.

Activists and the family’s supporters say they have more actions planned, because they want to continue the current trend of mobilizing for victims of violence in the Asian-American community.

The shooting of eight people in Atlanta on March 16, six of them Asian, tragically opened that conversation. Anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 150% in 2020, according to an analysis of reporting in 16 large cities by California State University, San Bernardino. With the shooting came an outpouring of examples of physical and verbal attacks against Asians living in America, and anger over their lack of representation in the media.

Hall’s death came just prior to “a sea change in terms of the national narrative around anti-Asian violence,” said Mohan Seshadri, co-executive director of the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance (API PA).

“I don’t want to claim that what happened to Christian was a specific example of anti-Asian bias,” he continued, but pointed to the lack of structural support for Asian-American communities as a systemic problem. That could mean language access, lack of mental health supports, and the large percentage of Asian-Americans in Pennsylvania who live in poverty as contributing to systemic discrimination.

“There is a spike in awareness, but this has been going on for so much longer than it’s been reported,” said Seshadri.

In Hall’s case, Seshadri and others called on Attorney General Josh Shapiro to investigate the case, but Shapiro’s office struck down that possibility.

“The death of 19-year-old Christian Hall is a tragedy,” said Shapiro, in a statement provided by his office.  However, “under Pennsylvania law, I do not have jurisdiction to investigate this matter unless I receive a referral from [Monroe County] District Attorney [E. David] Christine.”

Mancuso said there would be “no second look” or referral from the district attorney.

Outside the halls of justice, advocates like Sarah Kim said the case is an opportunity for younger Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders to open conversations in their own families.

“There are so many incidents of Asian people being assaulted, harassed, and killed over the last year, and so often their aggressors have gone free,” said Kim. She hopes raising awareness of Christian’s case, and all of the other recent violence against Asians in America, can spur conversations within this community about policing, politics and about mental health.

“At least, that’s what I can hope for,” she said.

Another rally is planned outside of Philadelphia City Hall on April 10, at 1 p.m.

 

WHYY is the leading public media station serving the Philadelphia region, including Delaware, South Jersey and Pennsylvania. This story originally appeared on WHYY.org.

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