Trip to Walmart ends in tragedy
- Published: July 21, 2016
JUSTICE FOR JOHN CRAWFORD?
This is the second in a series of articles focused on the 2014 police shooting of John Crawford III and its aftermath.
With Dylan Taylor-Lehman
The video of the police shooting of John Crawford III on August 5, 2014 shows a young black man holding what appears to be a rifle at his side while standing in a deserted aisle in the Beavercreek Walmart store. The man, seeming absorbed in what turns out to be a phone conversation, appears entirely unaware of the few shoppers who venture into the aisle, and the shoppers seem undisturbed by his presence. Suddenly two police officers armed with rifles rush toward Crawford and, with no apparent warning, shoot him. Crawford drops to the floor, then attempts to rise up. He drops to the floor again. He dies soon after.
Last week many Americans viewed two other disturbing videos of police shootings of citizens. In Louisiana police shot to death Alton Sterling, who was already lying prone on the ground. And in Minnesota, an officer stuck his gun in the car of Philando Castile, shooting him point-blank in the chest.
Videos that anyone can see on Youtube, created by store surveillance or ubiquitous cell phones, are offering citizens an up-close, and sometimes alarming, look at encounters between police and civilians that they’ve never had before, according to Ohio ACLU spokesperson Gary Daniels in a recent interview.
“The public looks at the video and says, ‘This doesn’t look right at all,’” he said.
And yet, while videos offer a critical tool for accountability for both police and citizens, the reality of an incident can be more complicated. In the Crawford case, what citizens see in the video is different than what the police officers say they saw when they encountered Crawford on that August day. And what they saw appears heavily influenced by what they expected to see, as determined by information they’d received from the 911 dispatcher who sent them to the store, relaying a faulty scenario described by a shopper. What they saw was also likely influenced by training on active shooter situations that both officers completed only weeks before the event.
When courts have been asked to decide whose vision is correct, they have until now come down on the side of the police, according to Daniels.
“The courts give a lot of deference to law enforcement. Police work can be a dangerous business and courts have been reluctant to substitute their own judgement for that of the police,” he said.
And indeed, the Greene County Special Grand Jury declined to bring charges against the police in the Crawford case, in September, 2014.
In this second article in our series on the Crawford incident, the News gives a detailed look at the events around the Crawford shooting. The article also attempts to provide contextual information on several contributing factors, incuding the role of the dispatcher and of active shooter training. The next article in the series will focus on racial aspects of police shootings in the national arena.
A fateful trip to Walmart
John Crawford III and Tasha Thomas had each had a bad day and were looking for fun when they made a quick stop at Walmart at about 7:45 p.m. They were heading to a barbeque and needed marshmallows and graham crackers to make s’mores, according to Thomas’s interview with investigators from the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, or BCI.
Thomas was still in the scrubs she wore as an in-home health care worker, having just gotten off work. Her relationship with Crawford was complicated: she described herself to the BCI as his girlfriend, although LeeCee Johnson, the mother of Crawford’s two children, also described herself as his girlfriend and said the two lived together. Crawford had told Johnson he was spending the evening with a female cousin; suspicious, Johnson called him repeatedly. Crawford’s phone kept ringing as he and Thomas roamed Walmart, according to the BCI report, until Thomas told him to just take the call. Johnson had earlier said Crawford could no longer see his kids if he didn’t want to be with her, Thomas told investigators.
Crawford, 22, of Fairfield, had been working odd jobs for the past several years. But he’d begun talking to his father, with whom he was close, about going to college, according to an Oct. 3, 2014 Buzzfeed story. The elder Crawford was a probation officer who lived in Tennessee; just that day he’d driven to Ohio to surprise his son with a visit.
In Walmart, Crawford and Thomas split up as Crawford took Johnson’s call. It’s not clear when exactly he picked up the pellet gun he began carrying, but shopper Ronald Ritchie saw him soon after with the gun in the store’s tool section, according to the BCI investigation. Walmart videos of the day show that two other shoppers had earlier picked up the gun, which was out of its packaging, then put the gun back on its shelf. Crawford, however, carried the gun with him as he talked on the phone.
Ritchie was alerted to a man carrying the gun by his wife. Ritchie, 24, believed Crawford was carrying an AR 15 — he was an ex-Marine who owned three such guns and he believed the weapon Crawford carried was real.
Pellet guns such as the one Crawford carried are designed to look just like assault rifles. However, they fire non-spherical slugs at a much lower pressure than lethal firearms, so are considered not as dangerous. And they occupy a grey area between toy guns and real firearms. While toy guns are required to have an orange tip that identifies them as fake weapons, pellet guns aren’t required to carry the identifier.
However, the similarity of pellet guns to assault rifles has had lethal consequences. According to a database of fatal police shootings compiled by the Washington Post, pellet guns figured into at least two dozen police shootings in the last 18 months. Unlike the Walmart event, however, those shootings all took place after civilians threatened police with the weapons, according to the Post summary of the shootings; the Crawford case stands out in that he does not appear in the video to be threatening.
Role of dispatcher
Concerned about Crawford, Ritchie began following him, keeping what his Marine training had taught was a safe distance. While Crawford, talking on the phone, sometimes carried the gun hanging down at his side, he also occasionally swung it over his shoulder or pointed it this way and that, Ritchie told the BCI. Ritchie also thought he heard a clicking a sound, as if Crawford were trying to load it. As Crawford stopped at the far end of the pet supplies aisle, which was largely empty, Ritchie called 911.
On the store’s video synchronized with the 911 call, Crawford can be seen at the far end of an empty store aisle. The video is blurry and it’s hard to tell that Crawford is on the phone, but he’s clearly absorbed in something and not paying attention to what’s happening around him.
The Beavercreek 911 dispatcher who answered the phone quickly elicited Ritchie’s name, location and reason for calling. “A gentleman is walking around with a gun,” Ritchie said, and in response to requests for description, described Crawford as a black man. In response to a question about whether Crawford was pointing the gun at people, Ritchie said that he was.
In this country, about 30 states require special training for 911 dispatchers, but Ohio does not. It’s not known if Beavercreek, which handles its own 911 dispatch and answered the call, requires specialized training for its employees. Captain Eric Grile of Beavercreek Police declined to provide any information on the training, since the department’s attorney had advised officers to not discuss anything related to the Crawford case.
At Xenia Greene Central Communications, which covers 21 agencies (not Beavercreek) that provide dispatch services, operators must spend six months of hands-on training, according to Communications Director Mindy Lane. However, active shooter situations are rare, and it’s not likely to come up during the six months, nor is there specialized training for such an emergency.
“As far as my knowledge, there is no active shooter training for dispatch,” Lane said this week.
The dispatcher who answered Ritchie’s 911 call appeared to be following standard protocol, according to Yellow Springs Dispatcher Rita Check, as she kept Ritchie on the phone until police arrived by asking questions about Crawford’s actions.
Yet it’s notable that the dispatcher did not ask about, nor was she told, that the aisle where Crawford was standing was largely empty, nor that he was talking on the phone. She repeatedly asked whether Crawford was pointing the gun at people and Ritchie initially said that he was. A woman with two children wandered toward the other end of the aisle from Crawford, and were apparently the people Ritchie referred to (he later clarified that while Crawford may not have been pointing at them, he was at one point swinging the gun around). However, in the video there is no indication that the family was aware of Crawford, nor that they felt threatened by him. The woman was later identified as Angela Williams, who after the shooting collapsed to the floor as she ran from the building with her children, and shortly after died of a heart attack.
The Beavercreek dispatch received only one 911 call regarding Crawford, the call from Ritchie. However, given the nature of the call, it was not unusual to send police out after a single call considering the potential danger of the situation, according to Check.
“If I get an excited call, I’m not going to vet it,” she said in a recent interview. “I take down the information and pass it along to officers.”
Two Beavercreek officers, Sean Williams and David Darkow, were the initial officers who responded to the 911 call. Williams was already in the parking lot near Walmart, doing paper work, when he heard the 911 call, and Darkow arrived soon after. The two men parked near the store’s main entrance, removed rifles from the trunks of their cars and entered the store’s main entrance. They didn’t speak to each other before entering the store, both reported to BCI investigators.
The men didn’t speak because they believed they knew exactly what was expected. Both had completed “Single Officer Response to Active Threats” training at the Beavercreek department less than two weeks before, and Williams reported to the BCI that he believed the training prepared him for exactly this situation.
Before going into the store, he called back the dispatcher, asking again if the shooter was aiming his gun at people. He was told that yes, the shooter was aiming his gun, although the video never shows Crawford aiming at anyone.
Even before the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in the late 1990s, police were being trained to respond to active shooters. However, the training has changed over the years, according to Yellow Springs Police Officer Timothy Spradlin, who has taught active shooter training. Initially police were instructed to contain an area with an active shooter and wait for the nearest SWAT team to arrive. However, Columbine taught police that waiting meant higher casualities, so after 1999, active shooter training instructed officers to confront the shooter once four officers arrived on the scene. But this strategy too resulted in high casualties. After 2008, police began training to respond individually or in groups of two to active shooter situations.
Williams and Darkow knew they were expected to enter the building alone and confront the shooter. In the BCI investigation, Williams also said he had never before responded to an active shooter call.
It was a little after 8 p.m. on a weeknight at Walmart, and the store appeared to the officers to be crowded. Williams later reported to the BCI that he believed many shoppers could be in danger. However, when the officers began asking shoppers if anyone had seen a man with a gun, no one said yes. BCI investigators later questioned about 30 people in the store that night, including more than 20 employees. None of the shoppers had seen a man with a gun until the police began shooting, and only a handful of store employees had seen him. Two employees who weren’t sure if the weapon was real went looking for the man with the gun because they worried he could cause a panic.
Williams and Darkow moved quickly down the store’s center aisle toward the pet department, where they believed Crawford was pointing a gun at customers. They understood that they had to act fast, because the need for a quick response had been emphasized in their training.
The Beavercreek training that Williams and Darkow had recently completed was an abridged version of the single officer response training developed by the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. However, because the department did not use the complete training, the AG office could not respond to questions about the training content, according to spokesperson Dan Tierney. And Capt. Eric Grile of Beavercreek, the department spokesperson, declined to answer any questions about the department’s training.
But a PowerPoint presentation used in the Beavercreek training obtained by the Dayton Daily News includes 11 slides, and several emphasize eliminating the threat as quickly as possible. On average, a shooter takes 15 seconds to kill someone, and the average police response is five minutes, one slide states.
“Speed, surprise and aggressiveness all need to be there,” according to the PowerPoint presentation. “The faster we can neutralize the threat, the less time he/she will have to harm innocent persons.”
John Benner, the owner of the Tactical Defense Institute in West Union and former longtime Hamilton County SWAT commander, agreed in a recent interview that speed is emphasized during active shooter training.
“You go in with the thought process that my job is to eliminate the person quickly and stop him from killing someone,” Benner said, stressing that there is no time to reassess the situation. “You go in with the information the dispatcher gave you. It’s a darn shame if you get erroneous information.”
And according to Spradlin, “The most important thing is to stop the threat.”
Williams and Darkow moved through the store until they saw Crawford at the end of the pet department aisle. While the video is blurry, Crawford appears to still be on the phone, holding the gun at his side. However, Darkow told BCI he never saw a phone. He also said he shouted at Crawford twice to drop the gun, although the sound isn’t clear on the video and Crawford doesn’t respond. In the video Crawford then turns toward the police. According to the BCI report, Williams saw Crawford’s movement as aggressive and felt that his life was in danger. He fired two shots at Crawford’s torso.
According to witnesses, it was only a matter of a second or two between the shouted orders from police and the two shots fired.
LeeCee Johnson, the mother of Crawford’s two children, was still on the phone with him, standing outside the home of Crawford’s mother. She heard him say, “It’s not real,” before shots were fired. After hearing the gunshots, Johnson cried out and handed the phone to Crawford’s father, who had just arrived for his surprise visit. “Dad, Dad,” John Crawford said, and then the elder Crawford heard his son struggle to breathe. Then there was silence.