A grand jury decided not to file charges Wednesday against police officers who shot and killed 22-year-old John Crawford III inside a Beavercreek, Ohio, Wal-Mart for carrying a BB gun. They rejected charges of not just murder, but also reckless homicide and negligent homicide, finding instead that there was no probable cause to charge officers with anything. One of those officers is already back on the job.
In conjunction with the announcement, special prosecutor Mark Piepmeier showed portions of the WalMart surveillance video that had been withheld from the general public pending the grand jury’s decision. The video shows John Crawford III holding the unwrapped BB gun he picked up in the aisle. At no point does he appear to point the gun at anyone, or even interact with anyone. Rather, he walks the aisles of the store with the BB gun, alternately holding it by his side and swinging it over his shoulder, as he talks on his cell phone and seemingly looks at items on the shelves of the store.
“Mr Crawford did not commit a crime that day,” Piepmeier said during a press conference. “He didn’t do anything wrong.” He added, “They took the lives of someone that didn’t need to die.” Piepmeier nonetheless defended the officers’ conduct that day, citing their training on “active shooters” and several other factors that culminated to lead to Crawford’s death.
In the video, police arrive after a customer calls 911 to report that Crawford is pointing the gun at people. That caller, Ronald Ritchie, has since changed his original story and said Crawford was not pointing the gun at anyone. Police, however, released a statement after the incident saying Crawford was “waving a rifle-type weapon at customers, including children.”
The video shows that within seconds of police arrival, they descend upon Crawford and apparently fire two shots. One hits him in the elbow, and the other in the side and travels through his body, piercing major organs. There is no appearance of struggle or resistance by Crawford before police fire the shots. Details are difficult to discern during this portion of the video, but Piepmeier explains that Crawford fell to the ground and dropped the gun after the two shots, then ran down the aisle, although police did not fire again. He later died after being transferred to the hospital.
Watch the video from WHIO, divided into two parts:
In the days leading up to Wednesday’s grand jury decision, hundreds of community members and activists marched 11 miles from the WalMart to the courthouse where the jury deliberated, demanding an indictment as well as the release of the tape.
During Wednesday’s press conference, Piepmeier attributed the shooting to a confluence of circumstances. If any one of a number of events had been different, he said, the shooting might not have happened. Among the factors are that someone had already taken the BB gun out of the box for Crawford to pick up, that he was carrying the gun around the store as he walked around, that the 911 caller was familiar with guns, and that Crawford was on his cell phone and thus might have been distracted from reactions customers might be happen to his casually toting the gun around the store. He also pointed out the striking resemblance between the BB gun and a rifle, holding up the BB gun held by Crawford and a rifle side by side. “As you can see, it’s very hard to tell the difference,” he said.
But the factor Piepmeier goes into the most detail to explain is that these officers received training on responding to “active shooter” incidents just two weeks prior to the incident. He notes that in 2008, after the frequency of mass shootings increased, the prior instruction to officers facing a potential active shooter changed. While they were once instructed to wait for a SWAT team or at least back-up officers before entering, the new wisdom was that any officer, even a single officer must respond to active shooters within minutes, because they complete all of their destruction within 3 to 4 minutes. “It’s almost like to me a pep talk for police officers,” said Piepmeier. “You have to go after this. You can’t ignore them.” He said the message conveyed to police is that you “shouldn’t be saying this is a bad day for being a cop. You should be saying, this is why I’m a police officer.” Officers are also asked to consider how they would handle the situation if their loved ones were the ones faced with the active shooter. And they are tasked with making split-second decisions that are difficult for us to judge with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight.
But what Piepmeier doesn’t raise is whether cops are asked to pretend that the suspect could also be a loved one. By his account, their training doesn’t ask officers to consider the potential damage that could come from acting too quickly, instead of not acting at all. He doesn’t question why police officers assumed the report of the 911 caller that Crawford was pointing his gun at others was accurate and signified an “active shooter” scenario to begin with, when it was seemingly not corroborated and not witnessed by the officers. In fact, Piepmeier said, “You know a lot of people in that store as we’re watching this video, they don’t even notice Mr. Crawford. They just walk right by him.”
If officers were relying only on the report of Ritchie when they chose to shoot, their fear and decision to shoot a young black man could have been affected not just by their own implicit bias. They could have also been appropriating the bias of a witness who sees a man with a gun and infers danger. That opens the door for the George Zimmermans of the world to impute to police their perceptions of danger.