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Video: John Crawford didn't seem to aim toy gun at anyone before police shot at him

Walmart surveillance footage shows Crawford wasn't brandishing his gun.
Walmart surveillance footage shows Crawford wasn't brandishing his gun.
Screenshot of video via WHIO

Correction: An earlier headline originally indicated John Crawford was shot after he dropped the toy gun, based on a video released with no sound. Full video footage and other media reports suggest he was shot prior to dropping the toy gun. This post was updated with a new headline, more details, and the full video footage to explain the correct chain of events.

Earlier today, an Ohio grand jury decided not to charge two police officers in the killing of John Crawford in a Walmart in August. Crawford, a black man, was holding a toy gun designed to look like an assault rifle.

Now, surveillance video from the Walmart has been released to the public. Because there's little sound, it makes it hard to tell when and how often the police shot Crawford. But the footage shows definitively that Crawford wasn't brandishing the toy gun when he was shot — and that he dropped it, ran, and came back before he died.

The video, which tracks Crawford as he made his way throughout the store, first shows him walking around while talking on his cell phone and picking up the toy gun from the sporting goods aisle. The video then shows Crawford standing calmly at the end of an aisle, holding the toy gun — pointed at the floor — in his right hand. Occasionally, he swings the gun gently back and forth, but there's no point at which the gun's pointed at anything — let alone at any person.

About one minute and a half into the video, Crawford suddenly moves out of the aisle as police officers enter the store with their guns drawn and pointed. Crawford drops the pellet gun, then trip over it into the rear aisle of the store. The audio in the video, which is taken from a 911 call, suggests police fired almost immediately after they placed their sights on Crawford, but it's unconfirmed whether the audio is accurately synced to the video footage. (The prosecutor in the case said Crawford was shot before he dropped the gun.)

Crawford then moves back into the aisle toward them, then turns away again — at which point he drops to his knees as the cops continue to advance. He falls to his back and his legs splay out (the rest of his body is hidden from view).

(Warning: This video is graphic and disturbing.)

The video doesn't show any of the behavior described in the 911 call that sent cops to the scene. The 911 call, placed by a man named Ronald Ritchie (who is white), said that Crawford was "pointing it at people" and "like loading [the gun] right now." The video shows Crawford wasn't doing anything like that when police shot him.

The mostly mute surveillance video doesn't make it clear whether police did, in fact, issue "verbal commands" to Crawford to drop the toy gun. But it indicates he never threatened anyone with the gun.

As long as police felt reasonably threatened, the law calls Crawford's killing "justified"

Videos like these, or like the video of St. Louis police killing Kajieme Powell earlier this year, often show the gulf between what police feel is legal and what the public believes is justified. As Vox's Ezra Klein wrote earlier this year, when the Powell video was released:

Many who have seen the video think it is anything but exculpatory. It raises questions about aspects of the story police told in the immediate aftermath of the shooting - Powell does not appear to charge the police with his knife held high, and he is shot when he is farther away than two or three feet, for instance.

It's more than just that, though. The events on the video happen quickly, but they also happen slowly. Powell does not move like a man who poses a threat. There is no evidence that anyone felt threatened before the police arrived...

It does not seem like it should be so easy to take a life.

However, the law says that police can be justified in killing someone even if they're not being threatened — as long as a reasonable police officer could have felt threatened in their situation. As Vox's Dara Lind wrote in the wake of Michael Brown's killing by Ferguson, Missouri, cop Darren Wilson:

There are plenty of cases in which an officer might be legally justified in using deadly force because he feels threatened, even though there's no actual threat there. {Criminologist David} Klinger gives the example of a suspect who has is carrying a realistic-looking toy gun. That example bears a resemblance to the shooting death of John Crawford, an Ohio man who was killed by police last week while carrying a toy rifle in Wal-Mart.

Hypothetically, if the gun looked real, Klinger says, "the officer's life was not in fact in jeopardy, but that would be an appropriate use of force. Because a reasonable officer could have believed that that was a real gun." In fact, toy gun manufacturers - including the maker of the air rifle Crawford had - have started using this standard to limit their liability, putting on a warning label that tells consumers police could mistake their products for real guns.

And as Vox's German Lopez has written, when it comes down to the question of "feeling" threatened, a police officer's implicit biases often come into play — which is bad news for young black men:

In police work, this bias can show itself when an officer stops a subject he views as a potential threat. Police officers are legally allowed to use force based on their perception of a threat, so long as their perception is reasonable. That doesn't, however, mean they always use force. "Police very often use a lesser level of force even when they're justified at a higher level," (criminologist Lorie) Fridell said.

But if some cops automatically consider young black men more dangerous, they probably won't show nearly as much restraint against a black suspect as they would against, say, an elderly white woman. Police officers might be more likely, as some argued was the case with Kajieme Powell in St. Louis, to use deadly force that's legally justified but perhaps not totally necessary.

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