Attorneys: Deter police misconduct by ‘making them pay’

John Crawford III walked into a Beavercreek, Ohio, Wal-Mart one day last August to buy supplies for a family cookout. A few minutes later he was dead, killed by a police officer who responded to a 911 caller reporting that someone was walking around the store waving a gun at shoppers.

“They just came in and saw John and shot him on sight,” said Michael Wright, an Ohio trial attorney representing Crawford’s family.

John Crawford III

John Crawford III

No one was charged with a crime in connection with Crawford’s death. So now his family has turned to the courts. Last month the family filed a civil lawsuit against Wal-Mart Stores, the city of Beavercreek and its police department, the police chief and two police officers.

Wright and his law partner Richard Schulte, who are handling the case, spoke Tuesday at the IU Maurer School of Law. The American Constitution Society and the Black Law Students Association at IU Bloomington sponsored the talk.

The story of Crawford, a 22-year-old black man shot by a white police officer, has figured prominently – along with those of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice – in recent protests of police shootings of African-American men and boys.

According to video of the incident shown by the lawyers, Crawford idly picked up an air rifle designed to look like an assault weapon and walked down an aisle of the store, talking on his cell phone. The air rifle had been taken out of its package and was on a shelf in the sporting-goods section.

Most shoppers in the store seemed to be ignoring Crawford. But one customer was alarmed and called 911. Within minutes, two police officers rushed into the store and charged to the aisle, and one shouted for Crawford to drop the gun. According to Wright and Schulte, a close analysis of the video shows the officer waited less than a third of a second before shooting Crawford.

The video also seemed to contradict the caller’s claim that Crawford was waving a weapon in a threatening manner. Instead, he stopped and stood in one spot for five minutes, apparently distracted by the phone conversation he was having with the mother of his 1- and 2-year-old children.

“What did John Crawford do wrong? Nothing,” Wright said. “Even the prosecutor said that.”

The attorneys argued that justice would have been better served if the officer who shot Crawford had been charged and tried. That was what the family wanted to see happen.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, a former U.S. senator, named a special prosecutor, who took the case to a grand jury. But the grand jury, which met in secret, chose not to issue an indictment.

Wright and Schulte said a grand jury will see only the evidence the prosecutor chooses to present. And prosecutors, they said, aren’t likely to press for charges against police, because they typically work as part of the same team in making cases against defendants.

That means civil court is the only recourse for people who are wronged by police, they said.

“The way you’re going to make it change is by making them pay,” Schulte said. “By holding them accountable.”

During a question-and-answer session, someone asked if there was a way to reform the grand jury system to eliminate secrecy and make it more accountable.

“That,” Wright said, “is the million-dollar question.”

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