'Where's Daddy?'
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A year after the
police shooting of
John Crawford III

Story by
Sharahn D. Boykin
Mark Gokavi

Whenever they visit their father’s grave, John Crawford III’s two young sons ask their grandparents the same question: “Where’s Daddy?”

A year after Beavercreek Police Officer Sean Williams shot Crawford dead as he held a BB/pellet rifle he had picked up from a Walmart store shelf while shopping, the incident has sparked actions stretching far beyond his family’s ability to cope.

But the impact of those actions — the Ohio Governor’s and Attorney General’s task forces’ recommendations, legislative efforts, an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice review, scrutiny of the grand jury process, a civil lawsuit, protesters’ calls for change — is just starting to scratch the surface.

“Other than horrific, there really are no words you can really use to explain what’s transpired within the last year,” said John Crawford Jr., who has custody of his grandsons, 2-year-old John IV and 16-month-old Jayden. “There’s only two ways out of it. I can self-destruct or I can persevere, as my ancestors have done since the beginning of time. So, I persevere.”

Tressa Sherrod and Crawford Jr. celebrated what would have been their son’s 23rd birthday on July 29. Interviewed at attorney Michael Wright’s offices in Cincinnati last week, Sherrod said John IV recognizes photographs of his father.

“He says, ‘Where’s Daddy?’ I want to go see Daddy,” Sherrod said. “We go to the cemetery. He’ll still say, ‘Where’s Daddy?’ He doesn’t understand yet.”

The Crawford shooting and the many incidents that have followed — including Wednesday’s murder indictment of a University of Cincinnati police officer for gunning down a black man during a routine traffic stop — have changed perhaps forever the image of the uniform and badge in some eyes, raising questions of race and the equal administration of justice. As baffling as some shootings are to the very young, there is an increased frustration — and anger — among people of all ages over the number of shootings that seem unnecessary and, in some cases even, unprovoked.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters blasted former UC Police Officer Ray Tensing Wednesday — and university police departments in general — saying, “This is the most asinine act I’ve ever seen a police officer make.” He also said University of Cincinnati officers aren’t real cops, though Tensing worked as a part-time and full-time police officer in the village of Greenhills in Hamilton County and as a reserve officer for Colerain Twp. before joining the campus police as a full-time officer.

Tensing pleaded not guilty during his arraignment Thursday in a case that was front-page news in the New York Times. The Walmart shooting last year resulted in no indictment after a grand jury spent months poring over evidence. But the concurrent efforts set in motion by the shooting continue today, though they are moving much too slowly, according to Wright.

The Crawford family said their son — on his cell phone with LeeCee Johnson, the mother of his children, while walking through the store — had .33 of a second to react before Williams’ first bullet ripped through the side his body.

Wright wants to know why the federal investigation is taking so long and why Ronald Ritchie, who triggered the events with a 911 call that reported Crawford III was walking around the store with a firearm and pointing the weapon at shoppers, hasn’t been made to answer for his actions that day.

“We are still waiting for the Department of Justice to make a determination as to whether or not they’re going to indict this officer for the shooting, Wright said. “We are still asking a lot of questions that we don’t have answers (to) regarding why nothing has occurred related to the 911 caller. There’s more questions right now than answers.”

Crawford, 22, of Fairfield died Aug. 5, 2014, after Williams shot him twice. Williams and Sgt. David Darkow said they commanded Crawford III to put down the BB/pellet rifle multiple times.

Angela Williams, 37, of Fairborn, also died as a result of the shooting. She went into cardiac arrest during the commotion following the shots when police yelled at shoppers to exit the store.

Tasha Thomas, 26, who accompanied Crawford III to the Beavercreek and was in the store at the time of the shooting, died months later when a car she was a passenger in crashed at high speed on North Broadway Street in Dayton.

SOME VIEWERS MAY FIND CONTENT OBJECTIONABLE: Surveillance video synced with audio from 911 call.

WHIO-TV News Center 7 report from night of shooting.

High-profile cases

Crawford III is one of many unarmed black men killed by officers around the country in the past year that attracted the attention of national media. Eric Garner, a 43-year-old New York man, died on July 17 after a police officer put him in a choke hold. Police believed Garner was illegally selling cigarettes.

Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed by Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9 in Ferguson, Mo., sparking a series of violent protests in the predominantly black community and around the country.

Three months later, Tamir Rice, 12, was shot and killed by a police officer in Cleveland while holding a pellet gun. A witness called 911 and reported a young male with a gun, but added the gun was probably not real.

More recently, 34-year-old Dontae Martin, of Dayton, was shot multiple times and killed by Montgomery County deputies in Harrison Twp. on July 23. Deputies responded to a 911 call about a vehicle that had driven off Springbrook Boulevard and crashed into a parked car. Deputies reported they fired their weapons after Martin pointed a gun at them.

Tensing shot Samuel DuBose, 43, during a traffic stop in the Mount Auburn neighborhood on July 19. Tensing’s body camera footage contradicted his story that DuBose had dragged him with his car. The grand jury indicted him last week on charges of murder and involuntary manslaughter.

Police use of force data

The perception of some is that black men are more often killed as a result of police force than whites, but recent studies show the opposite: white men account for the largest number of deaths resulting from officer use of force.

Of the 56,259 homicides reported over the four-year period between 2009 and 2012, 3 percent — or 1,491 deaths — were related to police use of force, according to a study by Richard Johnson, an associate professor in the University of Toledo’s Department of Criminal Justice, Social Work and Legal Specialties. Although a disproportionate number of those who died in these police encounters were black, a clear majority of 61 percent were white, with blacks accounting for 32 percent.

On average, an estimated 372 people are killed annually as a result of police use of force, according to Johnson’s research, compared to 13,223 people killed each year in criminal homicides, 35,900 people killed in motor vehicle accidents and 38,364 people who commit suicide.

In a study the Guardian newspaper launched recently and posted online, Ohio ranked seventh along with New York for the highest number of people killed by law enforcement this year, with 19.

After his department’s annual review on the use of force, Beavercreek Police Chief Dennis Evers in February wrote a memo to the city manager, “The data collected does not indicate a pattern of excessive or unnecessary use of force and there is no evidence of racial bias trends during response to resistance incidents.”

Where they are now

Angela Williams’ resting place shows engraved photos of her and her fiance, who were to be married the weekend after the incident. Williams’ mother Connie Wlazlo declined to comment for this article.

On Sept. 24, 2014, a Greene County special grand jury of nine people run by special prosecutor Mark Piepmeier, did not find probable cause that a crime was committed and therefore declined to bring criminal charges against Sean Williams.

Mark Piepmeier, special prosecutor, announces grand jury decision on Sept. 24, 2014. PHOTOS: CHUCK HAMLIN, TY GREENLEES / STAFF

Ritchie, the lone 911 caller, was not considered for any charges by the grand jury. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.

Sherrod is still angry charges were not brought against him.

“Seeing, or knowing Ronald Ritchie is still out there just enjoying his life with no consequences of what he’s done … .He set all this in motion,” she said. “Two people lost their lives because of his phone call.”

Officer Williams, after taking substantial time off, returned to administrative duty in March 2015. His fate awaits the outcome of the U.S. Justice Department’s investigation.

“We continue to review the facts and circumstances surrounding the shooting,” said Jennifer Thornton, a DOJ spokeswoman. “I’m not able to predict a time frame for conclusion.”

The Crawford family isn’t alone in expressing frustration with the investigative process.

Evers said keeping Williams on administrative duty for such a long period strains the department’s staffing resources.

“That’s frustrating, not just for me but also the Crawford family and other parties involved, because I don’t think anyone envisioned a year later we would be sitting here waiting for a determination,” Evers said. “Tell me what you need. Tell me what you want from us. We’ve pledged full transparency … The frustration is that it’s not moving.”

Darkow and Detective Rodney Curd, who aggressively interrogated Thomas, after the incident, are both back in their regular jobs with Beavercreek police.

Attorney Vince Popp, who represents the officers’ union in criminal matters, said Williams, Darkow and Curd would not be making any statements. “The officers acted well within their training and they did everything, in my opinion, correctly,” Popp said. “And they violated no criminal laws.”

On the night of the shooting, Crawford III and Thomas had stopped at the Beavercreek Walmart for supplies to make s’mores for a cookout.

“She was just a caring, kind person who was full of life,” Thomas’ mother, Diana “Dee” Thomas, told the newspaper after her the car accident that killed her daughter on Jan. 1. “Until one day… one day it was just all sucked out of her.”

‘I didn’t think it would take this long’

The U.S. Department of Justice has said nothing publicly about its efforts, though Wright said he’s been told federal investigators continue to interview people.

Crawford Jr. and Sherrod met in May with new U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Crawford said Lynch promised to look into the shooting. “I didn’t think it would take this long,” Sherrod said. “You definitely have to have patience, I’ll say that.”

In December 2014, Crawford’s family filed a wrongful death federal civil lawsuit against Walmart, the city of Beavercreek, Williams, Darkow and Beavercreek police Chief Dennis Evers.

“Our condolences continue to go out to the families who lost loved ones,” wrote Randy Grove, Walmart’s director of national media relations. “Out of respect for everyone involved, we believe it’s not appropriate to discuss the specifics of this matter. We take the safety and security of our stores very seriously so that Walmart remains a safe shopping experience for our customers.”

The civil trial date has been tentatively set for Feb. 13, 2017. “We’re just at the infancy stage of the litigation process,” Wright said.

The shootings of Crawford III in Beavercreek and Rice in Cleveland prompted Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine to form a task force to study training for Ohio’s nearly 35,000 officers.

“I think it caused everyone to look hard at what’s going on,” DeWine said in a phone interview last week. “For me, the best way to get our hands on the problem, or hands on the challenges, was to go to training.”

While state laws mandated only four hours per year of ongoing training for officers, DeWine’s task force recommended 40. The compromise after considering budgetary concerns was for 11 hours in fiscal year 2016 and 20 hours in fiscal 2017. About $20 million has been budgeted in that time frame to subsidize police departments’ training.

“We’re clearly headed in the right direction,” DeWine said. “Because of money and because of other decisions, officers have not received the training that they deserve. This is for the officers. It’s for the public. It’s for the people they come in contact with. All benefit. Everyone benefits from having a well-trained police force.”

Montgomery County Sheriff’s Maj. Daryl Wilson said he and the rest of the active shooter training subcommittee he was on examined the Cleveland and Beavercreek shootings to see how tactics could be improved.

The committee recommended more training on when to use force and how to better communicate with people in tense situations, Wilson said.

Governor’s task force

The biennial state budget includes $4 million to implement the recommendations from a task force appointed by Gov. John Kasich to improve all facets of police-community relations. Kasich also created a 12-member Ohio Collaborative Community-Police Advisory Board that includes Central State University student Austin B. Harris.

Harris, the board’s youngest member at age 21, said he sees his role as the voice of Ohio’s university students and young black men.

He doesn’t believe the Crawford shooting was justified.

“I was disgusted, because I looked at it like that could have been me,” said Harris, who is black. “I could have been in that Walmart.”

State Sen. Sandra Williams, a member of Kasich’s task force, urged the Supreme Court of Ohio to consider alternatives to private grand juries, which some have criticized for having little oversight and being ineffective.

“I feel, personally, that the grand jury process is outdated,” said Derrick Foward, Dayton unit president of the NAACP.

Williams suggested replacing grand juries with public preliminary hearings in police-involved fatal shooting cases.

But Ohio Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor replied in a letter that Ohio’s Constitution guarantees defendants in serious cases the right to a grand jury and that the only way to change the process would be to have a constitutional amendment.

“Because the grand jury right is secured by Ohio’s Bill of Rights, significant changes to the process, including its possible elimination in favor of exclusively using preliminary hearings, involves significant public policy considerations that impact multiple interests,” O’Connor wrote.

Crawford Jr. said the grand jury system didn’t work in his son’s case. Piepmeier, he said, told him that he didn’t want to be the special prosecutor but felt pressured by DeWine.

“Frankly, he said no one wanted the case,” Crawford said. “He was forced to take the case.”

Piepmeier declined to be interviewed.

The ‘John Crawford’ bill

Ohio Rep. Alicia Reece, D-Cincinnati, is pushing a bill that seeks to make real guns distinguishable from BB/pellet or toy guns. Reece, too, was a member of Kasich’s task force.

Originally proposed last legislative session, Reece put an amended version of her bill forward in this legislature in May.

In her sponsor testimony, Reece said her effort is “just one piece of legislation that begins the conversation on how do we return back to the days when toy guns looked like toys and real guns looked like real guns.”

Crawford Jr. supports the legislation, though he said his son’s case doesn’t have anything to do with whether the gun he held was real or fake. But, he said, “If that’s going to even potentially save a life, we should adopt it.”

Use of body cameras recommended

The city of Beavercreek assembled a shooting review board after the Aug. 5, 2014, shooting that consisted of three law enforcement officers, a pastor and a community member. The five-member review board reviewed the facts related to the shooting and issued a report with findings and recommendations to the police chief.

In a March 3 memo addressed to Evers, the review board determined that Williams’ actions were “legally justified and in accordance with departmental policy and training guidelines given the circumstances.”

“The review board did not feel recommendations for changes were necessary regarding policy, disciplinary action or the need for additional investigation,” the members wrote.

However, the board did make three recommendations, including that the department implement the use of body cameras. It was a body camera worn by Tensing that revealed his actions during the shooting of DuBose near the UC campus.

In June, the police department formed a committee to explore the logistics and costs of outfitting officers with body cameras. The committee will evaluate whether the department should invest in the cameras and gather more information on other factors such as privacy and equipment concerns, Evers said.

“We’re still trying to get a handle on the technology,” he said. “We’re trying to make sure we do our due diligence.”

The department has implemented the board’s suggestion to document training and is working on forming a citizen advisory committee that will include faith-based and civic organizations, residents and businesses, Evers said.

The city and police department want to do what they can to bring the community together, said Evers.

“The consensus is that all of us — the police department, the city, the community — what we all want is to do everything possible to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.”