Lawsuits continue 4 years after Ohio Walmart police shooting
By KEITH BIERYGOLICK, The Cincinnati Enquirer
CINCINNATI (AP) — After he shot John Crawford III, Officer Sean Williams charged down the Walmart pet aisle. He ran past stacks of cat litter and dog food, yelling “get down, get down, get down.”
For a moment, it looked like he missed. Crawford stepped toward the pellet gun he had been holding moments earlier, then fell to the ground. The 22-year-old was on the phone with his young children’s mother when he was shot.
“It wasn’t real,” she heard him say.
LeeCee Johnson didn’t know what he was talking about. She would stay on the phone for an hour as chaos erupted in Walmart, and she would listen as Crawford inched toward death. She wouldn’t find out until much later police believed Crawford was holding a deadly weapon.
As he rolled around on the ground, Williams approached with his gun trained on Crawford. He climbed on top of him, forcing Crawford’s hands together and into handcuffs.
By this time, blood was pooling under him.
Crawford’s elbow was completely blown off, and Williams applied tourniquets to wounds on both arms. He could see Crawford’s eyes rolling into the back of his head. He heard him moaning.
Williams tapped him on the side of his face.
He told him to stay awake. He told him help was coming. He told him medics would be there soon.
“We’re here to help you,” he said.
. . .
It’s been more than four years since Crawford, who largely grew up in Cincinnati, was shot and killed by a police officer in Walmart. Although Crawford was doing nothing illegal, Officer Williams has been cleared of wrongdoing by a grand jury, his own department and federal investigators.
But Crawford’s family is suing Williams, the police department and Walmart. They say Crawford was doing nothing but shopping and authorities had no reason to shoot him. They say Walmart failed to protect Crawford and should have stored its pellet guns differently.
The civil case is scheduled to go to trial in federal court in Dayton this fall.
Because of the lawsuit, Officer Williams and others had to testify under oath. Williams has never spoken publicly about the shooting, but said in a deposition he thinks about it every day. He’s watched the video dozens of times.
Williams’ lawyers and the Crawford family were unable to be reached for this story.
The Enquirer reviewed thousands of pages of investigative documents, police records and interview transcripts — some of which had not been publicly released until recently.
This is what we learned:
. . .
Police were called to the Walmart in Beavercreek, a suburban city near Dayton in Ohio, for the report of a man with a gun. A 911 caller said there was a black man in the store waving a rifle around and pointing it at kids.
When video of the incident was released, captured on store security cameras, it became clear Crawford didn’t do any of this. The video showed Crawford walking around the store with the pellet gun, occasionally leaning it on his shoulder and talking on the phone.
The video also showed Crawford not doing much before he was shot. In many ways, it’s this video that made his death international news and drew protesters to Beavercreek.
But for the police officer who shot him, the video was a relief.
State investigators brought in to review the case showed Williams video footage a few days after the shooting. First, he walked them through what happened. Then, they played the video and asked him more questions.
When they were done, Williams asked them to play it again. He said he was surprised how well he remembered what happened.
“You know, one day I’ll see things crystal clear and the next day everything is foggy,” he told investigators. “It makes me feel more confident after seeing the video.”
In his statements before viewing the video, he said Crawford took an aggressive stance, refused verbal commands and looked like he was turning to point the gun at him and another officer.
“If John would have been standing there in a non-threatening manner, I wouldn’t have pulled the trigger,” Williams said in a 2017 deposition.
The video, released after several controversial police shootings of black men, showed Crawford had little time to do anything.
An employee mixing paint saw Crawford walk by with the pellet gun.
In a witness statement, he told police it looked like a “fake AR-15.” But he said it didn’t have an orange tip on the barrel and worried it might cause someone in the store to panic. So he called the fitting room and an employee there radioed an assistant manager.
About 10 minutes went by, and while two employees were searching for the man with a gun, they heard two loud bangs. They hadn’t seen Officer Williams rush in, and they hadn’t found any man with a gun.
At first, employees told police they thought pallets were dropped or shelving fell over. One employee said she thought a piece of furniture toppled onto a child because of the screams.
The employees then saw more police run into the store, yelling for everyone to get out.
Williams was the first officer to arrive.
He had taken a crash report near Buffalo Wild Wings and was filling out paperwork behind Walmart. It was a place where he often wrote reports because no one bothered him there.
When the dispatch came for a man with a gun, he looked up the location and drove to the front of the store. He could hear sirens as he got out of his cruiser, so he waited for another officer.
When Sgt. David Darkow pulled up, Williams ran to his car. It was dark outside. Darkow opened his trunk, put his vest on and grabbed his rifle. Williams radioed dispatch to make sure the man with the gun was pointing it at people.
A dispatcher confirmed the report.
Darkow and Williams had been trained for active-shooter situations at a middle school two weeks prior. Outside, the two didn’t speak much. They looked at each other before walking in one of the main entrances.
“Are you ready to go in?” Williams asked.
The store was full of families and children, Darkow said in his deposition, but he didn’t see anyone panicking. He told the greeter to seek cover.
As the two officers moved toward the pet aisle, Williams asked a customer if he had seen a man with a gun. He hadn’t.
Darkow, who’s been on the Beavercreek Police Department for more than 20 years, saw Crawford first. He shouted to drop the gun. He said he didn’t know Crawford was on the phone until he watched the security footage a few days later.
“As soon as I gave the very first verbal command to drop the gun, he startled. I mean, he noticeably startled back. He looked up, saw us, and startled,” Darkow said. “We shocked him. It was very evident that our presence had shocked him.”
During his deposition, Williams was asked if he had any remorse for shooting Crawford.
“I do feel bad about it. I wish it had never happened,” he said. “I wish he wouldn’t have died.”
Williams was covering Sgt. Darkow and looking down the aisle to the right when Darkow saw Crawford and yelled for him to drop the weapon. That’s when Williams turned.
Williams pointed out in his deposition the Walmart camera was high above them in the store, providing a different angle than what he saw. He seemed to say the angle of Crawford’s weapon looked less threatening in the video footage than it appeared to him in the moment.
“When I saw him, it was the final act of him turning with the weapon in hand in a position to fire,” he said. “That was the reason why I pulled the trigger.”
Crawford had one hand on the pellet gun.
Williams didn’t return to work for six months, even after his administrative leave was lifted and an outside police investigation cleared him of any wrongdoing. He took sick leave, which his police chief said was related to Crawford’s death.
When Williams thinks about what happened, which he says he does every day, the things that go through his mind are awful. But he doesn’t believe he did anything wrong.
“If I had the same circumstances over again, I wouldn’t have changed a thing, knowing what I knew then.”
Williams didn’t know Crawford was holding a pellet gun until the next day. He didn’t find out the gun was unloaded until his deposition in 2017.
Williams believed Crawford was holding a real rifle. And he believed everyone in the store was in danger. Attorneys pressed him on what he actually saw Crawford do to make him a threat to others.
“The best I can describe is like an agitated movement with (the gun) as if he wasn’t going to listen,” Williams said. “I just felt everything about him was aggressive.”
After he was shot, Crawford fell behind the end of the aisle.
As Williams and Darkow charged forward, Crawford seemed to dart toward them for a moment. Williams heard Crawford say something but couldn’t understand him. His ears were ringing.
Williams said he thought Crawford was going back for the gun before he fell to the ground.
“I was ready to fire again.”
As a 22-year-old who hadn’t finished college, Williams said he took things too personally and had a maturity problem when he first became a police officer.
Since he started with the Beavercreek Police Department in 2006, he’s used force more than any other officer. As previously reported, police records show he used force 36 times between 2006 and 2013. The next closest officer in the department had 19 documented uses of force during that time period.
“Use of force” can be anything from pointing a weapon at someone to actually firing it. Williams worked a road patrol night shift for much of that time.
But Williams is the only officer in the history of the Beavercreek Police Department to shoot and kill someone. And he’s done it twice.
In 2010, he shot a drunk man who police said charged at his partner with a butcher knife. Williams was cleared of any wrongdoing.
Years before the Crawford shooting, Williams drove past a group of teenagers at the mall with his windows down. Those teenagers made pig noises and laughed at him.
Williams got out of the car and confronted them. He was accused of swearing at them but denied it.
In another incident, he was accused of pushing a woman who didn’t want him to talk to her kids. He denied that, but said during an internal investigation he would have been justified grabbing her arm and dragging her across the yard.
He was disciplined and subsequently spoke to a counselor. He says he became a better officer after that.
“I think it was overdue that I finally get some help,” Williams said.
One altercation led to a warning about his behavior.
Williams was involved in a crash on a snowy day in which a woman said Williams lied to a sheriff’s deputy to make it seem like the incident was her fault.
“You need to monitor him very carefully,” the woman wrote in a letter to the police department. “I am sure he has lied in the past and will certainly continue to tell one lie after another. The entire Beavercreek Police Department will suffer because of his actions.”
Beavercreek Police Chief Dennis Evers says the claim was investigated and there was no evidence Williams lied about the crash. Over the course of several depositions, Crawford attorneys suggested there was more to it than that.
They insinuated Williams’ aggressive policing had been tolerated because of his father, who has been on the force since the early 90s and is friends with the chief. Chris Williams was one of the first officers to arrive at Walmart after his son and Darkow went inside.
The police chief and others denied any favoritism.
Crawford family attorneys say Crawford had less than one second to react to the police officers’ verbal instructions before he was shot.
That number didn’t matter to Sgt. Darkow, who said officers would have been justified shooting Crawford even if they didn’t say anything at all.
“We believed that this person was loading an assault rifle, pointing it at people and had every intention of shooting up Walmart,” he said. “And we believed that it was our job to go and eliminate that threat.”
Q: You think you could have just turned the corner and shot him onsite?
As Williams said in his deposition: “I felt quite certain at that point that when he wasn’t listening to us . . . he was going to harm people . . . with that rifle.”
Both sides of this case have paid law enforcement experts to weigh in on Officer Williams’ actions. They couldn’t disagree with each other more.
Crawford’s expert, a former police chief in Florida, said officers have a responsibility to do their own assessment and ridiculed Williams for failing to independently verify anything the 911 caller said.
This expert said other officers would not have considered this an active-shooter situation once they walked into Walmart and saw no one was alarmed. The expert also took issue with Williams’ positioning during the shooting.
“By placing himself in the center of the store aisle he placed himself in potential jeopardy and then used that potential jeopardy to justify his shooting,” wrote Melvin Tucker.
Experts hired by Williams’ attorneys and the police department dispute the amount of time Crawford had to react and said Williams had a duty to go straight to the threat because of the 911 call.
Those experts say the crowded store raised the threat level.
“Officer Williams was forced to make a split-second decision in a quickly evolving chaotic situation,” wrote James Scanlon, a former SWAT officer in Columbus. “In my opinion, to not assume that the weapon in Mr. Crawford’s hand was an assault weapon would have been reckless and contrary to police training.”
Ronald Ritchie and his wife moved to Florida a few months after the shooting. He had lost his job as a roofer and didn’t have anything else lined up. He wanted a fresh start.
Ritchie was the man who called 911 and told a dispatcher Crawford was waving a gun around, possibly loading it and pointing it at children. Because of the discrepancies in what he told police and what the video showed, there had been some discussion about charging him criminally.
That never happened. What happened, after an interview with a Dayton television station following the shooting, was Ritchie received death threats.
He said an activist group sent several through Facebook. He deleted his account and blocked his cellphone from receiving calls because of the vitriol. He also received a threatening letter in the mail and said he had an altercation with Crawford’s family at a casino.
He talked to the FBI about possibly entering a witness protection program, but said he was told his situation didn’t meet the agency’s standards.
After the shooting, Ritchie said a Crawford relative confronted him, his wife, his dad and his step-mother while they were at Miami Valley Gaming Casino — about halfway between Dayton and Cincinnati.
The woman said she was Crawford’s cousin and was flanked by two bigger men, Ritchie said. He remembered the woman saying he had a lot of nerve showing his face in public.
“You’re going to get what’s coming to you,” she told him, according to Ritchie.
Ritchie alerted casino security and they escorted his family to the parking lot.
Ritchie says he and his wife regularly went to the Beavercreek Walmart to walk around because they only lived five minutes away. On Aug. 5, 2014, they went to dinner at Burger King right in front of the store.
He says his wife, April, has post-traumatic stress disorder because of the shooting and was having anxiety attacks in the hallway waiting for her deposition. She sees a counselor and became depressed after the shooting.
He said she likely won’t sleep for the next few nights because of their testimony.
“I felt bad. I still do,” Ritchie said of the incident. “That’s somebody’s child.”
He says he’s been called a racist but was just trying to protect everyone in the store by calling 911. He thought Crawford was going to rob the place and could have been on the phone telling other people where to meet him.
In his deposition, Ritchie supported the police officers but said they could have given Crawford more time to drop the gun. He too was asked if he had any regrets.
“If something like this was to happen again I’d probably do the same thing,” Ritchie said.
Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com