Prosecutors in Beavercreek, OH announced yesterday that a grand jury would not indict Beavercreek Police Officer Sean Williams in the death of 22-year old John Crawford III. On August 4, 2014—four days before Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, MO —Williams shot and killed Crawford inside a Walmart in Beavercreek. Crawford, a father of two had confided to his father shortly before he was killed that he wished to go back to school to pursue his college degree. When he was killed, Crawford was unarmed and had only with him an air soft gun (essentially a BB gun) that was unboxed and being sold at Walmart.
We’ve seen this movie before in its entirety: White man shoots unarmed Black man and the story ends with the criminal justice system telling us that no one is responsible. Every detail is familiar, all the way down to the Department of Justice’s involvement after the local prosecutors seem to drop the ball. In fact, over the past year it would seem that we’ve seen some incarnation of this story over and over and over. And, over again. We’ve now seen folks hop the fence at the White House and live to tell about it.
How many times can you watch this same story before deciding to change its ending?
Even as a sworn officer of the court I find myself confused nearly every time, sitting in my chair ever-hopeful for a different outcome, waiting for justice to finally show up. Each time I experience a new low of numbing disappointment when I am forced to swallow the bitter distaste that comes with the message that while we say #Blacklivesmatter, they say “maybe…but not so much.”
Despite the sad predictability of the Beaverton grand jury’s failure to indict Williams, this case does raise some interesting questions. For one, where is the pro-gun lobby? While Crawford wasn’t actually armed, it would follow that as the air rifle he was holding was not only actually a Walmart product and also that as Walmart does actually sell firearms, even had he been carrying a weapon, Crawford would still likely have been well within his 2nd Amendment rights. Whether it’s a theater massacre or a school shooting, the NRA never hesitates to make some sort of statement void of real empathy but designed to show their unwavering support for citizens’ right to bear arms. But here? Not a peep. John Crawford who? Apparently, guns are among the things that also are not for Black people.
[WARNING: VIDEO IS EXTREMELY DISTURBING]
The other question raised by this case is the real effectiveness of Federal involvement in these cases. The Department of Justice has said that its Civil Rights Division will be reviewing the case and conducting its own investigation. On first listen, that sounds great, right? We generally have high confidence in the competence of the DOJ and their ability to be unbiased. But, how much of a difference is it making? Remember the DOJ investigation in the face of the Zimmerman acquittal? No federal indictment. What about the investigation in Ferguson, MO with not only Darren Wilson but the entire department? Nope, no indictment there yet, and the general sentiment is that there will not be one. Likewise, discussion of DOJ involvement in reviewing the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island, NY has not led to the arrest, indictment, prosecution, or conviction of the officer responsible for killing him.
While it seems laudable that local elected in Beaverton proactively sought intervention from the feds once news of the grand jury’s decision hit, it seems unlikely to make much of a difference. In the past 5 years, this is the 3rd time a Beaverton police officer has shot and killed a citizen. Not a single instance has resulted in the arrest of the officer. In fairness, part of the problem is the DOJ is somewhat handicapped in that it has a limited number of statutes at its disposal to bring forth a federal civil rights indictment. Unlike state and local prosecutors, they are unable to prosecute under most common homicide statutes, especially once the offender has been acquitted at trial because of double jeopardy. However, it seems like instances where these cases even make it to trial are becoming few and far between. When do we move beyond DOJ’s continued intervention in isolated instances as a solution and begin to address wide-scale issues surrounding training deficiencies in law enforcement and the over-policing of communities of color?
The 911 and store surveillance tape from the death of John Crawford III (above) have now been released publicly and continue to raise even more questions. The 911 caller appears to be a frantic White male, who describes an assailant as someone who is waving a gun around and even pointing it at children in the store. The problem with this is that it isn’t supported by anything on the video. Additionally, on the video, at the point where Crawford appears to be shot, he is not pointing the weapon at any one. Though the video contains no audio, even as a former prosecutor, I fail to see where Crawford posed any lethal to Officer Williams or any other patron in that Walmart.
Same movie. Same story. Fear of the Black male is justification for his own demise, even when he has done nothing to warrant it other than to do something as harmless as walking the aisles of a local store.
When will we see a new ending to this story? And how do we change the script?
Charles F. Coleman Jr. is a former Kings County (Brooklyn, NY) prosecutor and Federal civil rights trial attorney. Follow him on Twitter @CFColemanJr.