WALNUT CREEK -- The family of a hairdresser killed by Walnut Creek police last month is seeking $15 million in a wrongful-death suit filed against four members of the police department, alleging the 22-year-old man was shot after officers tripped and fell over one another.
Anthony Banta Jr. was killed Dec. 27 when officers say he charged them with a knife after a fight with his roommate in their Creekside Drive apartment. A lawsuit filed Jan. 24 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco maintains the altercation had ended by the time police arrived and that Banta was not armed. The lawsuit says that one officer fired in a panic after reacting to the other officers tripping and falling behind him, and that other officers also opened fire.
Walnut Creek police declined to comment on the lawsuit, referring all questions to James Fitzgerald, an attorney representing the city. Fitzgerald also declined to comment, saying the incident is still being investigated.
Fitzgerald said the joint investigation, which involves the police, the Contra Costa County District Attorney's Office and the Contra Costa Crime Lab, could take at least three months but likely will take longer.
Police Chief Joel Bryden has previously said officers were forced to shoot when Banta came at them with a 10-inch knife.
The family's lawsuit, which names the city and four unidentified officers, said that Banta had just returned to the Bay Area after visiting relatives in Yuba City over Christmas. Banta got into an argument with his roommate, either over jealousy surrounding the roommate's girlfriend or "tidiness, noise or the many things that roommates can argue about," which led the roommate's girlfriend to make a 911 call about 3:15 a.m. reporting that Banta was trying to choke the other man, the lawsuit said.
Dispatchers reported to police that morning that they heard a struggle and a woman screaming on the phone before the 911 call ended abruptly, Bryden said at a Jan. 7 news conference.
Fitzgerald declined Tuesday to release the 911 tapes until the investigation is complete.
According to the complaint, the argument may have led to "throwing beverage cans or bottles, pushing or wrestling," but that the entire fight had ended before police arrived, and that the roommate had even managed to speak on the phone with California Highway Patrol dispatchers.
The lawsuit said Walnut Creek police responded "under cover of night and without a warrant," rushing to the landing of the first-floor stairway, where Banta, a hairdresser ata Walnut Creek salon, appeared at the top "wondering who was in his apartment."
It was when officers arrived at the landing, the complaint alleges, that one of them backed up, forcing the other officers back, and tripping them to the floor. In the panic that ensued, one officer fired his gun, and the other officers "joined in, repeatedly shooting Anthony to death."
Bryden said earlier this month that officers' knocks had gone unanswered, and the four officers walked into the apartment to find Banta at the top of the stairs, clutching a chef's knife with a 10-inch blade. When officers told him to drop his weapon, Banta suddenly charged down the stairs at them and they shot him.
The 12-page complaint does not mention a knife.
"No one was under any threat of harm," the complaint says. "Ultimately, only Anthony was harmed. Innocent of any wrongdoing, having only stood up for himself by denying the false allegations of the roommate, Anthony lay dead at age 22, never knowing that it was police officers of his hometown, whose duty it was to protect him, who had invaded his home and shot him to death."
Banta's family sought $15 million in damages in the complaint, along with funeral, burial and legal costs and a declaration regarding the officers' alleged "unlawful and unconstitutional" acts.
"No officer wants to shoot to kill," Bryden said earlier. "Officers don't shoot and kill anyone unless they are absolutely forced to."