Still seeking justice for Crawford
- Published: September 8, 2016
JUSTICE FOR JOHN CRAWFORD?
This is the seventh and last in a series of articles focused on the 2014 police shooting of John Crawford III and its aftermath.
A year ago in May, John Crawford Jr., the father of John Crawford III, was momentarily hopeful. He managed to meet U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch when Lynch traveled to Cincinnati, and took the opportunity to speak to the newly appointed Attorney General about the death of his son, who had been shot by police in the Beavercreek Walmart in August 2014.
“My question to her was, ‘Have you seen the video?’” Crawford said in a recent interview with the News.
Crawford was referring to the Walmart surveillance video taken the evening of the shooting. It shows John Crawford III, a 22-year-old black man, wandering into the empty aisle of pet supplies, talking on a cell phone and distractedly holding what appears to be a rifle (it is a pellet gun) by his side, sometimes swinging the gun in the air. In the 911 call synced with the video, the viewer hears Ronald Ritchie, the 911 caller, describe to a dispatcher Crawford loading a gun and pointing it at children, although children are only visible momentarily, and the gun is never pointed at them. Crawford continues talking on the phone at the end of an empty aisle.
Two police officers carrying rifles suddenly appear on the screen. Within seconds Crawford hits the floor as the officers approach. Muffled sounds of screaming are heard in the background as one officer charges Crawford, who has risen from the floor, and shoots him. Crawford then drops to the floor again. He died shortly after.
Lynch hadn’t seen the video, but promised Crawford she would watch it. He had asked her to view it, Crawford said, because many people have told him the video is what sparked their interest in bringing justice for his son. And indeed several local activists, in recent interviews, identified the moment they viewed the video as the moment they became involved in the Crawford case.
“Probably like 95 percent of white people, I had thought, ‘that can’t possibly be true,’” Roi Qualls said of reports he heard of the video’s contents. “But when I saw it, I thought, ‘Oh. My. Gosh. People who see this just have to say something.’”
The video can be viewed on the Internet, at WHIO.com, theguardian.com, or on any one of a number of other sites, including YouTube.
In this final article of the series, “Justice for John Crawford,” the News will address the current status, two years after Crawford’s death, of remaining legal efforts around the case, the effect of the shooting on local activists, and reflections from Crawford’s father.
Still seeking justice
A little more than a month after Crawford’s death, the Greene County Special Grand Jury declined to bring charges against Sean Williams, the officer who shot and killed Crawford. Shortly after, on Sept. 24, 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice, or DOJ, announced it was opening an investigation into the shooting.
“The Civil Rights Division, the United States Attorney’s Office and the FBI will conduct a thorough and independent review of the evidence and take appropriate action if the evidence indicates a prosecutable violation of federal criminal civil rights statutes,” a DOJ press release states.
That investigation is ongoing, according to David Jacobs, deputy press secretary of the DOJ Office of Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., in an email last week. Because the investigation continues, he said, the department could not comment on the status or scope of the investigation, which is being conducted by the national rather than the regional office. He did say, however, that the DOJ is not investigating the Beavercreek police department as a whole, but rather the specific events around Crawford’s death.
In the past two years the Crawford family and the family’s attorney, Michael Wright of Vandalia, had heard little from the DOJ about progress on the case. But last week Wright was contacted by the office of Vinita Gupta, director of the DOJ’s civil rights division, asking to meet with the family, although the date has not yet been set, according to Wright in an email on Monday.
“I hope that this meeting will give us an update on the status of the investigation and if charges will be filed against the officers involved in the shooting,” Wright wrote.
The Crawford family has also filed a wrongful death lawsuit in the Southern District of the U.S. District Court. While the jury trial for the suit was originally scheduled for February, 2017, it will likely be pushed back to late 2017, Wright said this week, because the ongoing DOJ investigation has delayed the Crawford family attorneys’ efforts to collect depositions from the officers involved in the shooting.
The lawsuit names as defendants Sean Williams and David Darkow, the officers involved in the shooting; Beavercreek Police Chief Dennis Evers; the City of Beavercreek; the Beavercreek Walmart and the Walmart corporate office in Bensonville, Ark.
The lawsuit seeks monetary damages to the family. While the suit states $75,000 as the amount sought from the City of Beavercreek, and an additional $75,000 sought from Walmart, that amount is the jurisdictional amount needed to file the suit in federal court, according to Wright on Tuesday. The family seeks a larger amount, comparable to monetary settlements from other police shootings. The $6 million settlement from the City of Cleveland to the family of Tamir Rice, who was killed by police several months after the Crawford shooting, would be considered comparable, according to Wright.
The family also seeks other forms of justice, according to Wright.
“We want these officers to be held accountable in their killing of Mr. Crawford,” Wright said. “ We want reforms in the Beavercreek police department. We want Walmart to discontinue selling airguns until better safeguards are in place. And we want his kids to be compensated for the loss of their father. Those things would be a start in providing justice for John Crawford. That’s what I’m fighting for, for this family.”
Effects on local activists
Yellow Springs residents have had a significant presence in the area Justice for John Crawford group, which has sponsored protests and vigils in Crawford’s memory, among other events. The case has also affected these local activists in a variety of ways.
While the Crawford shooting energized Jessica Thomas, local resident and high school teacher, into a new level of activism, it also led to her greater sense of vulnerability as an African American in America.
“It makes me think about where I go and how I carry myself as an African-American woman. Overall, I have a feeling of nervousness a lot of the time,” Thomas said in a recent interview.
John Crawford was shot while shopping at Walmart, and it was the everyday nature of the event, plus its proximity to Yellow Springs, that shook Thomas and engaged her in a social justice issue in a way she hadn’t been engaged previously.
“It really took something like this happening close to home to make me realize these things don’t just happen in big cities or in the South. They happen all over,” she said.
Like other local activists, Thomas would like to see the Beavercreek police officer who shot Crawford held accountable, along with the Beavercreek Police Department as a whole. She would like to see the 911 caller, Ronald Ritchie, charged with inciting violence and causing panic that led to two deaths (shopper Angela Williams died of a heart attack while fleeing the store). She also wants Walmart held responsible for the tragedy, which she believes was caused partly by the store’s negligence in displaying pellet guns on shelves rather than behind glass, as is the case with firearms. Crawford was shot by police who mistook the pellet gun he picked up off the shelf for an assault rifle.
While frustrated that so far none of these actions have taken place, Thomas remains determined. She hopes that those already involved in trying to bring justice for John Crawford remain committed, and that others join in.
“The public needs to keep the conversation going, keep talking about it, keep writing to legislators,” she said. “We need to let them know we won’t go away quietly.”
The two years since Crawford’s death have been sobering ones for Roi Qualls, another villager active in the Justice for John Crawford group. While he was always concerned about social justice issues, the Crawford incident has heightened his awareness of the ongoing occurrence of racism in American society.
After participating in the Crawford protests following his viewing of the video, Qualls became more disturbed after he attended hearings at Central State University sponsored by the Governor’s Collaborative on police/community relations. At that event, and others following, he heard testimonies from African Americans about being harassed by police for “driving or walking while black,” Qualls said.
“The stories they shared made my skin crawl,” he said.
Qualls, who works as an IT specialist for Antioch College, shares other activists’ desires to see accountability from police and reforms in the criminal justice system. Beyond this, he would like to see Americans, especially white Americans, look more deeply at their own implicit or explicit racial bias and sense of superiority, attitudes he believes contributed to police shootings of blacks.
“Ultimately, my thought is that there needs to be some sort of community reflection,” he said, especially in towns such as Beavercreek, where Crawford’s shooting took place. People from Yellow Springs should not only have such discussions themselves, but engage those they know from Beavercreek, he believes.
Qualls believes that there is a way that whites and blacks could move forward together to create a more just society, but he’s doubtful such change will occur, as the solutions he imagines would be “unpalatable” to most people.
Specifically, along with whites such as himself confronting their own racism, he believes that blacks would “have to let go of some of the transgressions of the past.”
“To the extent that we could do those things, I believe genuine alliances could form,” he said.
Villager Bomani Moyenda, one of the leaders of area activism around the Crawford incident, has also been deeply affected by Crawford’s shooting and its aftermath. Overall, Moyenda views the Crawford case as mainly a lesson in corruption, he said in a recent interview.
“I think it’s atrocious the way they have stonewalled throughout and ignored opportunities to pursue real justice,” he said in a recent interview.
Moyenda is referring to local, county and state officials in the criminal justice system. Secretive attempts to protect the officers involved in Crawford’s shooting began early, Moyenda believes, with the release of the store video of the shooting delayed by the Attorney General’s office until after the grand jury announced its verdict to not pursue charges against the officers.
When the video was released, it felt like “a smack in the face,” Moyenda said, because to his eyes the video clearly shows that Crawford was gunned down by police while doing nothing wrong.
“If they had evidence to make Crawford look guilty, you can bet it would have been released quickly,” he said.
Corruption was also evident in videos that showed investigators from the Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation, or BCI, treating Crawford’s African-American girlfriend harshly, while going easy on the white officers who killed Crawford, Moyenda believes.
“It’s like they were coaching them” rather than interrogating the officers, Moyenda said.
This spring, after the FBI synced the 911 call with the store video, Moyenda led a campaign aimed at bringing charges against Ronald Ritchie, the 911 caller who gave inaccurate information to a dispatcher and who Moyenda believes clearly lied. Using a little known section of the Ohio Revised Code, he and several other citizens, including Thomas and Qualls, wrote affadavits asking Ritchie to be charged with inciting panic, making false alarms and involuntary manslaughter due to the new evidence presented in the video synced with the 911 call. While a Fairborn judge found sufficient reason to move ahead with the charge of making false alarms, Mark Piepmeier, the same prosecutor who led the grand jury that declined to charge the officers, was chosen to prosecute. Piepmeier soon dropped the case.
While he has seen “pockets here and there” of hope in a few police departments attempting reforms in the past two years, Moyenda mainly feels discouraged. He’s also concerned about the effects on the country as a whole if substantive changes in the criminal justice system don’t come to pass.
“This keeps happening, people getting shot by police and no accountability,” he said. “People are getting fed up. This lack of trust is pretty entrenched and it will be hard to turn it around.”
Things look a bit more hopeful to Jessica Thomas. While just as concerned as Moyenda by the lack of progress in the Crawford case, she finds some inspiration in the number of people who remain active and engaged in trying to bring justice to John Crawford, even two years on.
“Seeing all the work that people are doing two years later, still talking about John Crawford and working toward reform — it gives me a little bit of hope,” she said. “But we have a lot of work still to do.”
Hanging on, moving forward
John Crawford Jr. remains focused on trying to bring attention to the injustice of his son’s death, he said recently. He receives a lot of emails and interview requests, and he tries to respond to them all.
Crawford lives in Jackson, Tenn., and has spent most of his life working in the criminal justice system. He started out in juvenile probation, then adult probation, and has most recently trained in mediation, he said.
The two years since his son’s death have been undeniably hard, he said, but he keeps moving forward.
“We’re hanging on. We don’t have much choice. You can move forward and fight this thing or just give up. But we’re fighters,” he said.
What keeps Crawford going are his grandsons — John IV and Jayden, John Crawford III’s sons who live in Fairfield, Ohio, with their mother — and his desire to achieve justice for his son.
Justice for his son would mean indicting and convicting Sean Williams, the Beavercreek police officer who shot and killed his son, Crawford said, although he knows the grand jury has already decided not to bring charges against the officer. It would also mean holding accountable Ronald Ritchie, the 911 caller who gave inaccurate information that ended up contributing to his son’s death.
And beyond these actions, Crawford would like to see an overhaul of not only the Beavercreek police department, but the entire criminal justice system. Although he’s spent his adult life working in that system, he sees its flaws clearly, especially after police killed his son.
“It’s obvious that we have a major problem in America in our criminal justice system. Complete change is the only thing that will satisfy me,” he said.
Those reforms would begin with the grand jury process, which he believes should be transparent rather than veiled in secrecy. The grand jury process is also deeply flawed because it charges local prosecutors with determining whether to indict local police who they often know personally, a level of familiarity that breeds corruption, Crawford believes.
Reformers also need to look closely at effects of police racial bias, which Crawford believes has been a significant component in the shootings of black men, including his son, in the past several years.
“We have a racist system,” Crawford said.
He would like to see these reforms not only for his son, but for the many, many other loved ones shot by police, many of whose families he has met since his son died.
“It’s more than just my son, it’s thousands of other families,” he said.
Crawford is concerned about the level of anger and fear he hears in the African-American community around police shootings, and the potential explosive effects on the country.
“We have some very afraid individuals and when people have nothing left to lose — they’re the most dangerous people in the world,” he said.
While the past two years have made Crawford aware of what he perceives as a heightened level of despair among people of color, it has also led to some moments of hopefulness. Specifically, he feels buoyed by all of those who are still trying to bring justice to his son and to others who have been killed by police.
“It illustrates that there are still good people in the world who don’t care what color you are,” he said. “When I see people coming together around this, that’s amazing to me.”
And so he keeps going. But sometimes, Crawford said, he needs extra help.
“I pray for strength all the time,” he said.