Racial factors in Crawford’s shooting
- Published: August 11, 2016
JUSTICE FOR JOHN CRAWFORD?
This is the fourth in a series of articles focused on the 2014 police shooting of John Crawford III and its aftermath.
Beginning in the early 2000s, Joshua Correll, a social psychology researcher now at the University of Colorado, began a series of studies examining the effect of race on shoot/don’t shoot decisions using videogame-like simulations. The studies consistently found that “participants are faster and more accurate when shooting an armed Black man rather than an armed White man, and faster and more accurate when responding ‘don’t shoot’ to an unarmed White man rather than an unarmed Black man,” Correll wrote in a 2007 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
These findings, along with related sociological findings, “clearly indicate that race can play an important role in decisions about the danger or threat posed by a particular person,” Correll wrote in that same study.
Correll’s 2007 research sought to determine the role of race specifically in the shooting decisions of police officers. He found that police, like civilian study participants, revealed racial bias in the experimental simulations: they were faster to shoot armed black men and slower not to shoot unarmed black men. But the research also found that police, as compared to civilian participants, made fewer mistakes in their ultimate shooting decisions, meaning they shot armed suspects and refrained from shooting unarmed suspects, regardless of race. In fact, wrote Correll, “target race had no impact on their ultimate decisions,” though it did slow down their response time in “counter-stereotypical” scenarios of unarmed black men and armed white men.
In 2014, John Crawford III was shot by a Beavercreek police officer who believed that the 22-year-old African-American man was carrying a real firearm, waving it and pointing it at shoppers. He was shot within two seconds of being ordered to drop his weapon, according to witnesses at the Beavercreek Walmart where Crawford was killed. Officers had been dispatched to the store looking for a “black male” with a gun; that descriptor crops up repeatedly in the written report of the officer who shot Crawford, Sean Williams.
In this fourth article in our series, the News seeks to understand how racial factors may have played into Crawford’s shooting. In incidents across the nation involving white officers shooting black men, race is often a flashpoint for anger and suspicion. But race also has the potential to illuminate these encounters, drawing out both the complex reality of policing and the sometimes deadly role that even subtle racial bias can play.
In their own words
The written reports of the two responding officers, Sean Williams and Sergeant David Darkow, supplement the Bureau of Criminal Investigation, or BCI, report by providing a continuous narrative in the officers’ own words.
In his report, Williams described his first glimpse of Crawford on the night of the shooting as follows: “As I quickly checked to the right I immediately heard Sergeant Darkow yell, ‘Drop the weapon!’ As I turned towards the pet department I immediately saw a black male standing in the center of the aisle. He was holding a rifle.”
Darkow spotted Crawford a split-second before Williams. In his report, he detailed that moment: “As I peered around the corner of the last aisle, I could see a black male subject, matching the description given by the initial caller, holding what appeared to be a black assault rife. I could see that he was holding the rifle with his left hand on the fore grip and he was turned to his right. He looked as though he was holding the rifle in a ‘low ready’ position. I immediately began yelling at the subject to drop the gun as Officer S. Williams came around to my right side and stood in the aisle.”
A moment later, Williams shot Crawford.
In his report, Darkow described events immediately surrounding the shooting this way: “I yelled for the subject to get on the ground, however he did not. Instead, he made a quick movement. Officer S. Williams fired two shots from his rifle at the subject.”
Williams’ narrative reported the scene as follows: “After repeated commands to drop the weapon, the male turned towards us in an aggressive manner with the rifle in hand. At that time the black male was in a position where he could shoot me or Sergeant Darkow. I felt at that moment that my life was in immediate danger, that Sergeant Darkow’s life was in immediate danger and that the lives of all the families, children and customers were in immediate danger. I then fired two rounds at the suspect.”
A witness on the scene, retired from the military and familiar with the sound of gunshots, said he heard one to two seconds of silence between the shouted commands and the two quick shots.
Reviewing uses of force
The Beavercreek police department has a detailed written policy covering use of force, which the policy refers to as “response to resistance.” One aspect of that policy is a multi-layered process of review that occurs each time an officer uses force. This applies to both lethal force and non-lethal force (physical force, Tasing, pointing a weapon and using pepper spray). Each time an officer uses force, he or she is required to submit a written report. That report is reviewed by the division commander, after which a report of review findings is forwarded to the chief of police.
In cases where lethal force is used, regardless of whether a death occurred, the police chief is directed to “empanel a shooting review board to review the incident and make recommendations as to justification, policy review, disciplinary action or investigations,” according to the current policy.
In the Crawford shooting, the five-member shooting review board, including three law enforcement personnel, found Williams’ use of lethal force justified. The board also made three recommendations for greater transparency measures — body cameras, a citizen advisory board and the videotaping of training exercises — that are still under review by Beavercreek police, according to several Dayton Daily News reports this spring.
Beavercreek police, contacted by the News about the shooting review board and the use of force review process, declined to comment on the advice of their attorney. The Beavercreek city attorney, contacted on the same matters, did not respond to follow-up questions.
As part of its use of force review, the Beavercreek police department compiles annual “response to resistance” reports covering all use of force incidents in a given year. According to a July 28, 2016, article in the Dayton Daily News, a review of those reports by the Crawford family’s lawyers, independently verified by the Dayton paper, revealed that Williams “used force 10 times more than the staff average during his first eight years in the department,” from 2006 through 2013.
Williams had 36 “response to resistance” incidents during those years, according to the Dayton Daily News. The other 57 officers employed by the Beavercreek police during that time averaged 3.56 uses of force, though 20 of those officers were not on the force for the entire time. The second highest number of use of force incidents associated with a single officer was 19, and six officers had incidents numbering in the double digits, again according to the Dayton Daily News.
The Dayton paper also reported a response by Beavercreek Police Chief Dennis Evers to the use of force findings. Evers stated that Williams had never had a complaint filed against him for excessive use of force. He also pointed out that Williams beat was in a retail area, where use of force incidents may be more common.
Race and use of force
But there’s another layer to the story. Beginning in 2009, the Beavercreek police department began reporting the race of civilians involved in use of force incidents. According to a review by the Yellow Springs News of reports from 2009 through 2013, the Beavercreek department recorded 150 incidents. Thirty-one of those, or 21 percent, involved black civilians.
The population of Beavercreek is 2.5 percent black, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The News does not have information pertaining to the race of all civilians arrested during those years, so it is unknown whether those use of force incidents proportionally reflect the race of arrestees during that time.
Within those five years, Sean Williams had more use of force incidents than any other single officer, consistent with the larger pattern reported by the Dayton Daily News. Williams used force 22 times out of the departmental total of 150 incidents during that time. He was also responsible for the only use of lethal force in the department’s history, a 2010 shooting of a 45-year-old white man who was reported to be threatening police with a knife during a domestic violence call. Williams was cleared of charges for that incident.
Looking specifically at race, seven of Williams’ 22 use of force incidents, or 32 percent, involved black civilians. In these seven incidents, Williams pointed a weapon in three instances, used physical force in two instances and used a Taser in two instances. This pattern is more heavily tilted toward use of greater force than to both Williams’ use of force incidents overall and the distribution of various types of force in the department overall.
The numbers are small, and therefore easily weighted by one or two more serious arrests. But the figures do raise the possibility that Williams was more likely to use aggressive force against African Americans than white civilians, at least in the five years leading up to Crawford’s shooting.
There is not, however, any record of race-related complaints against Williams. Responding to a 2014 email query from the BCI seeking information about any such complaints, Beavercreek Police Captain Eric Grile stated that no complaint had been filed “internally or externally for allegations of ethnically based actions” against Williams or Darkow.
Implicit bias and use of force
According to former Yellow Springs Police Chief John Grote, police use of force can be a flag for implicit bias. Grote spoke from his own experience as a 25-year veteran of the Yellow Springs police force, not in reference to the Crawford case.
“In the news, [implicit bias] shows up in so many cases of police officers using way too much force in situations that don’t call for it,” Grote said in a recent interview. “I just know it’s from implicit bias.”
Asked for an example of how such bias might operate, Grote put forward a scenario in which “two black guys” might be assumed to be “up to no good,” while “two white guys” wouldn’t be viewed the same way. Those assumptions then condition how officers respond, he said.
In Grote’s experience, implicit bias often shows up in a pattern of “excessive force in dealing with a certain group of people.” As chief, he was alert to such patterns, and once he identified a potential problem, he worked with officers to understand and shift their behavior. Grote said he consulted several times with an area psychiatrist specifically to learn more about implicit bias and how to reduce it.
In current Police Chief David Hale’s experience, preconceptions linked to implicit bias tend to disappear “three to four seconds” into an interaction. In the context of an actual encounter, a person’s appearance matters far less than factors like tone of voice, attitude and behavioral cues, Hale said in a recent interview, speaking about his own experience and not the Crawford case.
“If I stop a car with four very large men … I’m going to be apprehensive” approaching the car, he said. That apprehension will ease if the men seem relaxed and polite, but his guard will stay up if the men act in a belligerent manner, he explained.
However, Hale acknowledged that police officers’ focus on body language and behavior, while essential to the job, can actually feed into stressful interactions, including those with African Americans. Because of historic tensions with police, black Americans may assume they’re being stopped unfairly, he said. And this assumption may translate into a certain “vibe” that heightens an officer’s own sense of being on edge.
In this kind of scenario, Hale reflected, “I tend to be more rigid, less human and [in more of a] ‘self-preservationist’ mindset.” The cycle isn’t good, he said. And in the most extreme cases, the mutual distrust between officers and citizens can “become a self-fulfilling prophesy.”
The role of officers’ perceptions
Returning to Officer Williams’ report, it seems clear from his words that he shot Crawford because he believed his life was at risk: “I felt at that moment that my life was in immediate danger, that Sergeant Darkow’s life was in immediate danger and that the lives of all the families, children and customers were in immediate danger. I then fired two rounds at the suspect.”
The law gives a lot of weight to an officer’s sense of danger, according to a July 28, 2016, New York Times article on the role of officer perceptions in police shootings. “The longstanding official deference to the viewpoint of police officers is enshrined in the laws of some states and Supreme Court rulings,” the article noted. Police advocates say this deference makes sense, according to the article, given that policing is dangerous work in which threats can arise instantaneously.
The Beavercreek police department has a detailed written policy on use of force, including use of lethal force. The lethal force portion of the policy states that deadly force may be used by officers “only when they reasonably believe that the action is in the defense of human life, including the officer’s own life, or in the defense of any person in imminent danger of serious physical harm.” The policy also specifies that lethal force may be used to prevent the escape of a suspected felon, if the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious injury to an officer or others.
This policy reflects the deference to officers’ perceptions noted in the recent Times article. Specifically, on the matter of what constitutes “reasonable belief,” the Beavercreek policy cites Graham v. Conner, a 1989 Supreme Court ruling that established the “perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than … the 20/20 vision of hindsight” as the standard for assessing an officer’s use of force. In other words, an officer may be later proven mistaken about circumstances, but it is his or her in-the-moment understanding that carries legal weight.
According to the Times report, some activists and legal experts have begun to question that traditional standard. In light of recent shootings of unarmed black men by white officers, these activists and experts have raised “the possibility that racial biases may account for why a particular encounter felt dangerous,” the article explained.
Recalling the Correll research, armed black suspects in experimental simulations were shot more rapidly than armed white suspects. Numerous studies of implicit bias show that it is easier for people, including police, to perceive an armed black man as a threat.
How such a perception, commonly seen in research scenarios, played into Crawford’s shooting may ultimately be unknowable. What is certain is that Williams, believing his life and the lives of others to be at risk, fired on Crawford within two seconds of encountering him. And it is certain that Williams’ perception — per legal and departmental decisions to-date — remains the legal standard for judging the act.