State Crimes

John Crawford looks to have been murdered. Even worse, the police who killed him are probably free to kill again.

Still courtesy of Greene County Dailies/Youtube
A still from the surveillance video of John Crawford in Walmart.

Courtesy of Greene County Dailies/YouTube

“It was an execution, no doubt about it,” said John Crawford II, the father of John Crawford III, a 22-year-old black man killed by Ohio police last month. “It was flat-out murder. And when you see the footage, it will illustrate that.”

It’s hard not to agree. If you watch the Walmart surveillance footage of Crawford’s killing—released Wednesday by prosecutors in the case—you don’t see a confrontation, or anything like the scenario described by Ronald Ritchie, the witness who called 911.

In Ritchie’s account of the event, Crawford “was just waving [the gun] at children and people. … I couldn’t hear anything that he was saying. I’m thinking that he is either going to rob the place or he’s there to shoot somebody.” Moreover, said Ritchie, “He didn’t really want to be looked at, and when people did look at him, he was pointing the gun at them. He was pointing at people. Children walking by.” Indeed, on the emergency call, Ritchie said that Crawford was trying to load the gun, leading dispatchers to tell officers that “he just put some bullets inside.”

The problem is that isn’t true. In surveillance footage, there are no people in the aisle or children walking by—Crawford is alone, on a phone. He has a gun by his side, but as we later learned, it was an unloaded air rifle. What’s more, Ohio is an open-carry state—legally, there’s no reason to approach Crawford if he isn’t using the gun to harm people. Which he wasn’t.

Police say they called out to Crawford before they shot, but the footage throws doubt on the claim. In the video, there’s no indication Crawford heard police commands before they shot him—police rush from the side and shoot, and Crawford falls to the ground. He tries to get away, but police corner and arrest him. He died later, at a nearby hospital.

To go back to Crawford’s father, it’s difficult to watch this video and conclude his son wasn’t murdered. The pace of the event—the speed with which police used lethal force—gives it the feel of a summary execution. In that, it’s similar to the killing of Kajieme Powell, who police shot moments after confronting him near a convenience store in St. Louis last month. In Powell’s case, the police officers were put on administrative leave, and the St. Louis Police Department is pursuing an investigation. In the case of Crawford, prosecutors charged the officers with murder, reckless homicide, and negligent homicide, but the grand jury declined to indict them.

Not that this was a surprise. Even in the most restrictive departments—where officers have little leeway on the use of force—police are granted wide latitude for their actions. As Dara Lind points out for Vox, the key to the legal standards for use of force “is that it doesn’t matter whether there is an actual threat when force is used. Instead, what matters is the officer’s ‘objectively reasonable’ belief that there is a threat.” Barring an extraordinary misuse of force—a cold-blooded killing, for instance—police are nearly immune to criminal prosecution (though they can be fired or face civil consequences).

That is true for federal investigations, too. “Federal prosecutors,” notes the Associated Press, “declined to charge New York police officers who killed the unarmed Sean Bell in 2006 in a 50-shot barrage following his bachelor party in Queens.” Likewise, in 1999, the New York officers who shot Amadou Diallo, an African immigrant, never faced federal charges for his killing. The Justice Department has opened an investigation into the shooting of John Crawford as well as the Ferguson, Missouri, shooting of Michael Brown, but past cases suggest both will end without charges.

In a sense, the real scandal isn’t that police killed Crawford—it’s what police can get away with in the use of lethal force. The answer, by and large, is everything. And for communities that face the brunt of official violence, it feels as if—when it comes to police—they are outside the protection of the law. During the Ferguson protests, National Review writer Charles Cooke made an important point about black American anger over police violence:

As a rule, your neighbor does not exist to protect you; he is not paid by the whole of the citizenry; he does not claim to act in your name, or to treat everybody equally. And, if he commits an illegal act, he will be charged by authorities and he will face a jury of his peers that will first pronounce upon his guilt and then decide upon his punishment. He, in other words, is subject to rules that are designed to help you if he steps out of line; the state, by contrast, has very little above it.

If that sounds unfair—if it sounds like an exaggeration—then think of Michael Brown, John Crawford, and Kajieme Powell. Each died for nothing, and at most, they’ll get the condolences of a few officials. The cops, on the other hand, will go back to work.