Through the lens of race: the 911 call
- Published: August 4, 2016
JUSTICE FOR JOHN CRAWFORD?
This is the third in a series of articles focused on the 2014 police shooting of John Crawford III and its aftermath.
From Beavercreek to Baton Rouge, high-profile police shootings of unarmed African-American men over the past two years have roiled, and rallied, people nationwide. To many Americans, these shootings reveal dramatic disparities in how white and black citizens are perceived and treated by police — and how and why, in certain instances, they die at the hands of police.
In the summer of 2014, the police shooting death of John Crawford III in Beavercreek brought this story home to many in Yellow Springs. Outraged at the death and the circumstances that led up to it, some villagers spoke out, organizing protests and other actions. These activists saw, and continue to see, Crawford’s race as a key factor in his death.
“He was killed because he was black and the guy who called 911 figured he didn’t have the right to walk around with a gun. In his mind ‘open carry’ doesn’t apply to black people,” villager Bomani Moyenda said recently, referring to Ohio’s “open carry” law, which makes it legal for licensed gun owners to carry their weapons in public with or without a conceal carry permit. (Crawford did not have an actual firearm, but rather was carrying a pellet gun he had picked up from the store’s shelves.) In addition to organizing protests and vigils in the aftermath of Crawford’s death, Moyenda led a citizen affidavit filing effort to seek charges against the 911 caller, Ronald Ritchie, whose report of an active shooter-type scenario brought police to the Beavercreek Walmart on the night of Aug. 5, 2014.
“I couldn’t really fathom someone being shot for not doing anything wrong or aggressive,” villager Jessica Thomas, another affidavit filer, said last week. Thomas said she, too, believes racial bias motivated the initial 911 report and shaped the police’s lethal response.
Earlier this spring, villager M.J. Gentile said she believed Ritchie told “a series of lies” based on racist perceptions of Crawford. This belief, coupled with the video evidence that clearly showed, she said, that “John Crawford was innocent,” prompted her to join Moyenda and others in seeking charges against Ritchie.
It may be impossible to know exactly how race and racial bias played into Crawford’s death. But as these local views and nationwide reactions to police killings powerfully attest, race is part of the context in America, and perhaps especially so in policing contexts. In the third and fourth articles in our series, the News will examine Crawford’s shooting in light of national data on police shootings, evolving understandings about racial bias and the intersection of bias with the complex work of policing. This third article will focus on the 911 call; the fourth article, next week, will take a closer look at the police response.
What the figures show
The data is very clear: blacks, and specifically black men, are far more likely than whites to die at the hands of police.
In an Oct. 15, 2015, analysis in the New York Times, for example, an economist who studies racial discrimination found that blacks were two-and-a-half times more likely to be the victims of police shootings than whites. Just under one-third, or 31.8 percent, of shooting-death victims nationwide were African-American, according to the article, although blacks make up just 13 percent of the population.
Historically, police killings of civilians have not been reliably tracked by the FBI or other federal agencies. The Washington Post is among news organizations that have stepped into the breach. For the past two years, the Post has tracked fatal police shootings nationwide. The Post data shows that 990 people of all races (the vast majority men) were killed by police last year, and 537 have been killed so far in 2016. About a quarter of those killed each year were African-American, significantly higher than their share of the population, while about half were white, substantially lower than their population share of 72 percent.
The majority of these deaths involved civilians armed with lethal weapons, according to the Post’s data. But in 2015, the Post counted 93 deaths of unarmed civilians and 34 deaths involving toy weapons. This year so far, there have been 35 unarmed deaths and 23 involving toy weapons.
Drilling down further, the Post numbers show that two-and-a-half times as many unarmed blacks were shot dead by police in 2015, as compared to unarmed whites. Almost 15 percent of blacks killed by police were unarmed, versus six percent of whites. In 2016 so far, 12 percent of blacks shot dead by police were unarmed, versus seven percent of whites.
While many studies reveal such racial disparities, one recent analysis sought to address the question of racial bias by analyzing the likelihood of blacks and whites being killed by police in comparable kinds of encounters with police. Researchers looked at data from Houston, and found that blacks in that city were actually slightly less likely to be killed by police than whites in similar types of incidents. Blacks were, however, significantly more likely to be subject to all other uses of force — such as being touched by police, pushed or sprayed with pepper spray — as compared to whites during equivalent encounters with police in Houston and nine other cities and counties nationwide.
Despite well-documented racial disparities in police shootings, the role of racial bias in any individual incident is exceedingly hard to prove.
The U.S. Department of Justice’s 2015 findings on the Ferguson shooting make this clear. While the Justice Department found a pattern and practice of civil rights violations, including racial bias, in the Ferguson police department and municipal court, it did not find Officer Darren Wilson guilty of violating the federal criminal civil rights statute by “willfully” using unreasonable force.
The Justice Department is currently reviewing the Crawford shooting.
Implicit bias and feeling ‘unsafe’
One unique — and to some observers, uniquely troubling — aspect of the Crawford case is the role of Ronald Ritchie, the 911 caller. At a press conference following the grand jury decision not to indict the two officers involved, Special Prosecutor Mark Piepmeier acknowledged the pivotal importance of Ritchie’s eyewitness account, saying, “If he’s not here, we may not be here.”
Unlike other high-profile shootings, police did not encounter Crawford at a traffic stop, or in the course of investigating a crime. Rather, police entered the Beavercreek Walmart specifically looking to eliminate an active shooter threat described by a single 911 caller.
Before Ritchie called dispatch, however, it was his wife, April Ritchie, who first noticed Crawford and pointed him out to her husband. Interviewed by an agent from the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation, or BCI, two days after the shooting, she said she felt “unsafe” when Crawford rounded the corner at a distance of 10 to 20 feet carrying a gun she believed was real.
According to the BCI report of that interview, April Ritchie described Crawford’s actions as “very shady,” explaining that he was “kind of being overly aware of his surroundings” and seemed to be “not trying to raise any precautions from anybody.” Crawford didn’t engage the Ritchies, nor did he make eye contact with or otherwise acknowledge other shoppers. She didn’t smell alcohol or marijuana as he passed by, but she did note that he was talking on his cellphone. She briefly saw Crawford’s face — she described him to BCI investigators as a black male with an afro pulled up — but tried not to look at him, she said.
The BCI investigators interviewed 30 other individuals who were in the store that night. None of the shoppers they questioned and just two of the Walmart employees noticed a man with a gun.
The lack of general alarm raised by Crawford’s presence in the store set against April Ritchie’s heightened sense of threat does not prove racial bias. But it does raise the possibility that a form of stereotyping known as implicit bias could have shaped her perceptions.
“Implicit bias is different from explicit bias in that we’re mostly unaware of how it affects our behaviors and interactions,” explained Carmen Culotta, a Wright State psychology instructor who has studied the issue and in January presented on the topic to the Ohio Collaborative Community-Police Advisory Group, the body tasked with recommending police reforms. According to Culotta, who declined to speak specifically about the Crawford case, implicit bias is often nonverbal and affects our body language and split-second behaviors. “Just about everybody” has this form of bias, she said, which may or may not line up with a person’s consciously held beliefs.
For example, studies have shown that unconsciously held stereotypes about the elderly, women and people of color can shape our behaviors toward individuals from those groups and set the tone for human interactions without our full awareness. Age-related implicit bias may cause people to automatically speak slowly and deliberately around older individuals. Racial implicit bias that stereotypes African-American men as violent, criminal and aggressive may likewise trigger unconscious actions. Asked for an example, Culotta cited the hypothetical case of a white woman who instinctively “clutches her purse” as she walks by a black man.
Once April Ritchie pointed Crawford out to her husband, Ronald Ritchie placed a call to 911 because “it wasn’t normal,” she told BCI investigators. While he was on the phone with dispatch, the couple trailed Crawford at a distance that Ronald Ritchie, who had briefly served in the Marines, deemed safe. He narrated what he saw to the 911 dispatcher.
Ritchie’s eyewitness account
Ritchie’s 911 account exists alongside video evidence from Walmart surveillance cameras showing Crawford’s movements in the store. That evidence was part of what BCI investigators and grand jury members reviewed, though it wasn’t released until after the grand jury decision clearing the responding officers of wrongdoing. A version of the video synched by the FBI with audio from Ritchie’s 911 call offers a unique “real-time” juxtaposition of Ritchie’s words with footage from the store.
Local activist Bomani Moyenda has viewed that video-audio synch dozens of times. And he’s observed numerous, glaring inaccuracies in Ritchie’s account, summarized here. The video does not show Crawford pointing the gun at people, as Ritchie stated twice to dispatch. It does not show Crawford “muzzle checking” children, as Ritchie claimed in his BCI interview. It does not show him “trying to load” the gun, as he stated twice to dispatch. It does not show him repeatedly “waving it around,” as Ritchie said to dispatch and maintained in later interviews.
Early in the audio of the 911 call, Ritchie says, “He’s, like, pointing it at people.” A minute or so later, he tells the dispatcher, “He just pointed it at, like, two children.” The video flatly contradicts these claims, said Moyenda. And in fact, Ritchie himself modified this aspect of his account over time. In his interview with BCI investigators the next day, Ritchie initially tells the agents he had observed Crawford “muzzle checking” two children. He and the agents then view the surveillance footage together, and Ritchie’s account changes. The investigators do not probe him about the shift.
Crawford wasn’t so much targeting anyone as “just waving [the gun] around pointing at things,” which “made me uneasy,” Ritchie indicates in this portion of the BCI interview. A month later, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Ritchie is more emphatic: “At no point did [Crawford] shoulder the rifle and point it at somebody.”
How did Ritchie, the eyewitness, get this crucial piece of information wrong?
As with April Ritchie’s perceptions, implicit bias offers one possible answer. A 2004 study by Stanford University researcher Jennifer Eberhardt and colleagues explored how well-documented stereotypic associations between black Americans and crime affects people’s visual processing. In one experiment, participants were “primed” with an image of a black or white face (flashed too rapidly for them to consciously register), then shown a fuzzy image of a crime-related object, such as a gun, being gradually brought into focus. Participants primed with black faces were quicker to identify the still-fuzzy images as a gun or other crime-related object as compared to those primed with white faces. The stereotype, in effect, prompted participants to make connections in the absence of clear visual information, the study found.
Of course, stereotypes can also be consciously held, and the role of racial implicit bias doesn’t preclude the possibility of explicit bias, local activist Jessica Thomas emphasized. Thomas believes overt bias likely played a role in motivating Ritchie’s perceptions.
During the BCI interview, Ritchie does not directly state any racist views. However, several comments to agents suggest a lack of sympathy for Crawford’s death. For example, he opens the interview with the comment that “the other guy kind of deserved it,” referring to Crawford. By contrast, he characterizes the death of Angela Williams, who died of a heart attack as a result of shock over the shooting, as “tragic.” And he remarks to the agents, again referring to Crawford, that “if you’re dumb enough to point any kind of weapon at a police officer you get what’s coming to you.”
Other clues to Ritchie’s racial views include two Facebook posts reported in the media that reference race. One of these was posted the day before his 911 call. According to a Sept. 26, 2014, article in the Guardian, this post was a “meme” featuring comedian Gabriel Iglesias. It read, “Me, racist? The only race I hate is the one you have to run.”
No charges against Ritchie
On Dec. 16, 2014, Crawford’s parents and girlfriend filed a federal civil rights and wrongful death suit against the responding police officers, the Beavercreek police chief, the city of Beavercreek and Walmart. They did not include Ritchie in the suit, though they publicly condemned his actions.
Last spring, however, several Yellow Springs residents, led by Moyenda, filed citizen affidavits asking the courts to review the video evidence and bring criminal charges against Ritchie. Fairborn Municipal Court Judge Beth Root found probable cause for one of the named charges, making false alarms, which is a misdemeanor. She turned the case over to the Fairborn prosecutor, who appointed Mark Piepmeier as special prosecuting attorney — the same prosecutor who’d led the grand jury investigation. At the time of the grand jury decision, Piepmeier said of Ritchie, “He’s trying to be a good citizen, reporting as best he can, what he’s seeing.”
This spring, Piepmeier declined to press charges against Ritchie. “I don’t find any evidence that Mr. Ritchie knew any of the information he was providing was false,” Piepmeier wrote in his decision. He also voiced concern that prosecuting Ritchie would deter the public from calling 911.
Moyenda and other activists have criticized the appointment of Piepmeier and urged another review of the video. They haven’t succeeded.
The statue of limitations in Ohio for misdemeanors is two years. On Aug. 5, 2016, the window for prosecuting Ritchie on the “false alarms” charge closes.