Revisiting Crawford, two years on
- Published: June 30, 2016
JUSTICE FOR JOHN CRAWFORD?
This is the first in a series of articles focused on the 2014 police shooting of John Crawford III and its aftermath.
It’s been nearly two years since John Crawford III, 22, was shot and killed in a Beavercreek Walmart by Beavercreek police. Crawford’s death, on the night of Aug. 5, 2014, occurred between the highly publicized deaths of two other black men at the hands of police that summer. On July 17, Eric Garner, 43, was strangled in a police chokehold in Staten Island, N.Y. On Aug. 9, four days after Crawford was killed, Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed by police in Ferguson, Mo.
Those events, and others — including, on Nov. 22, the shooting of another young black man, Tamir Rice, 12, by Cleveland police — raised urgent questions about police use of force, police relations with African American communities and the role of race and racism in the justice system (in each of these cases, grand juries declined to indict the officers involved, who were white). Crawford’s killing is part of that national conversation, but it is also the flash point for another conversation: how all these themes play out in our own county, our own backyard.
The Walmart store where Crawford was killed is just 10 miles from Yellow Springs, about 20 minutes by car. Yellow Springs, with its activist legacy, has been deeply involved in protests of the shooting and actions to seek justice that many believe has not been served. A local chapter of Black Lives Matter, organized in response to Crawford’s death, led many of these efforts. One local activist, Bomani Moyenda, who has continued to press for justice in the case, said in a recent interview that the village played the “largest role” of any local community in protesting the -shooting.
And that role continues. In March, a group of local citizens, led by Moyenda, sought a municipal judge’s review of video evidence in an effort to bring charges against the 911 caller, whose eyewitness account is pivotal to the case. A special prosecutor — the same prosecutor who argued the grand jury case two years ago — declined to charge the caller, but Moyenda and others are continuing to pursue this aspect of the Crawford case.
Partly because of sustained local interest and involvement, the News is revisiting the Crawford shooting, from the perspective of nearly two years on. Many troubling questions remain. Some of these questions pertain to specifics of the case: how and why events unfolded as they did that night in Walmart; the role of the 911 caller; the reasonableness, or not, of the police response; the role of video evidence in the case; and the grand jury’s decision not to indict the officers. Other questions touch on larger themes that are as pertinent to our community as anywhere: the persistent, sometimes subtle role of racism in shaping white perceptions of African Americans, particularly young black men; police use-of-force policies and the training, assumptions and on-the-job dangers that underlie them; and the role of guns in an “open carry” state where few state restrictions are placed on gun ownership.
What the News aims to bring to the story is twofold: a local perspective on a case that has involved and affected many people in Yellow Springs, and a weaving together of the shooting, its aftermath and its implications into a single narrative that examines certain elements in greater depth. The News will run a series of articles focused on the Crawford case over the course of this summer, concluding in August, the month Crawford was killed.
Recap of the Walmart shooting
Events unfolded quickly on the night of Aug. 5, 2014. John Crawford III, a Fairfield, Ohio, resident, was shopping at the Pentagon Boulevard Walmart in Beavercreek, reportedly for supplies for making “s’mores.” At some point, wandering the store’s aisles, he picked up an unpackaged BB/pellet air rifle from a shelf. The air rifle, sold at Walmart, resembles an assault rifle, but is not a real firearm; it shoots BBs or pellets rather than bullets. Walmart video surveillance footage indicates that Crawford held the air rifle pointed down at his side in a manner that seems mostly casual; at one point, he swung the rifle from side to side. Throughout the video, he is seen talking on his cell phone. The publicly released portion of the surveillance video shows him lingering at one end of an aisle in the pet supplies section, which is mostly empty. At one point, a woman and two children enter the other end of the aisle; they do not appear to notice Crawford, who holds the air rifle loosely and continues to talk on the phone.
Meanwhile, another Walmart shopper, Ronald Ritchie, spotted Crawford and reacted with alarm. Ritchie called 911 to report a black male with a gun in the store. According to Ritchie’s 911 account, the man was waving it around, shouldering it and pointing it at people. (A few weeks later, Ritchie recanted aspects of that account in an interview with the Guardian.) A Walmart employee also noticed Crawford; he reportedly alerted another department that he’d seen a man with what was probably a fake assault rifle, but no action was taken. Richie’s 911 call was the sole report made to local police about Crawford that night.
Two Beavercreek police officers, Sean Williams and Sgt. David Darkow, were dispatched to the Walmart within minutes of Ritchie’s call. They confirmed with police dispatch the 911 report that a man inside Walmart was pointing a gun at people. The officers entered a reportedly calm scene, talked briefly to several customers, then ran toward Crawford from the other end of the aisle. The officers reported that they shouted at Crawford several times to drop the rifle. It is hard to tell from the surveillance video what is said, and how many times it is uttered. Crawford, still on the phone and holding the air rifle, does not appear to be immediately aware of the officers’ presence. Officer Williams, who later said he believed Crawford was turning in an “aggressive manner” toward police, a claim that’s hard to verify or disprove from the video, fired two shots at Crawford seconds into the confrontation.
Crawford fell, bled profusely and was pronounced dead at Miami Valley Hospital later that night. His last words, to the mother of his children and his father, both of whom were on the other end of the phone, were reportedly, “It’s not real.”
The time elapsed from Ritchie’s call to Crawford’s fatal shooting is about six minutes.
Another shopper, Angela Williams, 37, collapsed fleeing the store after the police shots were fired. (She is the same woman seen briefly with her children in the surveillance video.) She died of cardiac arrest; the coroner later ruled her death a homicide.
Justice for John Crawford?
Dozens of rallies followed in the days and weeks after Crawford’s death, many protesting the shooting and demanding police accountability, others voicing support for Beavercreek police. Almost immediately, Crawford supporters began calling for the release of Walmart video surveillance to shed light on events in the store. Attorney General Mike DeWine showed the video privately to Crawford’s family, who pressed for its public release, but DeWine declined to do so prior to grand jury proceedings.
DeWine’s office appointed Hamilton County prosecuting attorney Mark Piepmeier as special prosecutor to investigate the case. In late September, about six weeks after the shooting, a special grand jury made up of five men and four women convened in Xenia to consider criminal charges against Beavercreek officers Williams and Darkow. Grand jury deliberations are not a jury trial, but rather a review of evidence to determine whether a criminal case should proceed to a jury trial. On Sept. 24, 2014, after hearing from 18 witnesses over the course of two days, the Greene County grand jury in the Crawford case declined to indict the officers on any criminal charges.
“All I can say about this case is that it’s a tragedy,” said Piepmeier, announcing the grand jury’s decision. “It’s a tragedy for the Crawford family … and it’s also a tragedy for the police officers, who have to live the rest of their lives knowing that, even though they had a justified use of force, they took the life of someone that didn’t need to die.”
Crawford’s family denounced the grand jury finding. “The Walmart surveillance video and eyewitnesses prove that the killing of John H. Crawford III was not justified and was not reasonable,” they said in a statement.
In December of 2014, the family filed a federal civil lawsuit against Walmart and the Beavercreek police, alleging wrongful death and civil rights violations. That trial is scheduled to begin on February 13, 2017.
By Ohio law, grand jury proceedings remain sealed. But to Crawford supporters, the surveillance video and other evidence — including officer and witness interviews and statements subsequently released to the public — prove that justice was not done in the Crawford case.
“The officers in no way acted justly,” said Derrick Foward, president of the NAACP’s Dayton unit. The grand jury’s decision was “unbelieveable,” he added, given what the video revealed about events in the store.
On the same day of the grand jury decision, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it would conduct an independent review of the circumstances surrounding Crawford’s death through its civil rights division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of Ohio and the Cincinnati FBI. There’s no word as to when these agencies’ investigations will conclude. Governor John Kasich and Attorney General DeWine had both issued statements calling for a Justice Department probe.
“After talking with the Attorney General and watching the video myself, I agree with his decision that a review by the U.S. Department of Justice is appropriate,” Governor Kasich said in a statement.
Both officers involved were returned to the Beavercreek police force. Williams, who fired the fatal shots, was put on administrative leave after the shooting, then on desk duty, where he remains pending the federal probe. Sgt. Darkow was returned to active duty a couple of weeks after the shooting.
Last year, an advisory panel appointed by Governor Kasich in response to the Crawford and Tamir Rice shootings issued Ohio’s first statewide standards on police use of force, intended as minimum, non-mandatory guidelines for the state’s nearly 1,000 police departments. A Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial last year suggested that many local departments likely had comparable or even tougher standards already in place. Beavercreek Police Chief Dennis Evers said in a Dayton Daily News article this spring that he expects his department will have no difficulty meeting the new standards, having already met or exceeded a national standard for deadly force.
Tragedy or injustice?
In a statement issued after the 2014 grand jury decision, city of Beavercreek officials characterized Crawford’s shooting as tragic, yet also justified.
“The events of August 5 were tragic and we wish the outcome of that evening had been different. However, based on the information the responding officers had and Mr. Crawford’s failure to comply with the responding officers’ orders, the officers did what they were trained to do to protect the public,” the statement read in part.
Citizens at pro-police rallies just after the shooting sounded similar themes, emphasizing the dangers that police officers routinely confront. One Beavercreek resident quoted in the Dayton Daily News said, “They put their lives on the line every day for us and they never know what they’re walking into. They get that call and they don’t know what to expect.”
But to Crawford supporters, the young man’s shooting is both a tragedy and something more — a miscarriage of justice that began with the officers’ rapid response to faulty eyewitness information and continued with the grand jury’s decision to clear police of wrongdoing. Reflecting on the case this spring, local activist Moyenda put it starkly: “A kid gets killed and you have a legal system that figures out how to get away with it.”
Local activists continue to raise many questions about the case: about the role of Ritchie’s 911 account, about police actions and training, about the role of race. While the special grand jury’s decision is final — the officers are cleared of criminal wrongdoing — the Crawford family’s lawsuit and Department of Justice investigations may, in the coming year, shed new light on the circumstances of Crawford’s death and the appropriateness of the officers’ actions, and may even result in civil charges against police.
And so, two years after the shooting, the Crawford case remains open — to questions, reevaluation and new legal rulings. Over the next two months, the News will take its own closer look.