Other times, the danger was not as clear. Three of the people shot by police were unarmed, although that wasn’t always obvious to the officer. In seven cases, the victim was armed with a knife, hammer or garden tool. In seven other cases, officers were allegedly attacked with a vehicle. The subject reportedly had a gun in 26 cases, or well over half.
John Crawford was holding a BB gun at a Beavercreek Walmart when officers responding to a 911 call shot and killed him. That case will be presented to grand jury Sept. 22.
This newspaper’s analysis found Ohio grand juries rarely charge officers following shootings, though some have led to civil suits that have cost local governments.
The city of Trotwood in May paid out $262,500 to settle a lawsuit brought by Denton “Eddie” Little, who was shot twice in the chest by Trotwood police officer Ron Smith in March 2012.
Little, who is white, was unarmed when Smith stopped him for jaywalking in Drexel and ordered him to approach his cruiser. While approaching, Smith said Little started “staring me down” and put his hands in the back of his pants. Smith ordered Little to stop and when he didn’t, the officer pulled out his gun and shot him from his vehicle.
“He almost lost his life for a jaywalking ticket. Come on now. You know that’s a little ridiculous,” Little’s wife Angela told reporters while he recovered in the hospital.
A grand jury cleared Smith. Trotwood Police Chief Quincy Pope said Smith followed department policy and wasn’t disciplined. He left the department in 2012 to become a Warren County sheriff’s deputy.
“There was no finding that the city of Trotwood did anything wrong,” Pope said. “Because of the cost of litigation, it just made more sense to just settle the case.”
Pope said officers should be judged on what they knew when they pulled the trigger, not on what was discovered later.
“Police officers deal with facts and circumstances known to them at the time, and they make split-second decisions based on what’s known to them at the time,” he said. “You have to look at the totality of the circumstances to make a judgment about any particular instance.”
Other cases that resulted in legal settlements include the 2005 deadly shooting of Rennie Moore by an undercover Montgomery County sheriff’s detective. Moore allegedly drove at Detective Shawn Baab after Baab tried to stop him in an unmarked car. The county settled a civil suit for $100,000 in 2009 after a grand jury declined to indict Baab.
In 2006, Preble County paid out $500,000 to settle a lawsuit from the family of Clayton Helriggle, who was shot and killed during a 2002 drug raid in West Alexandria.
No one knows how many people in Ohio were shot or killed by police last year, or how many were referred to a grand jury. No agency is responsible for tracking that information, and there is no requirement that officer-involved shootings be criminally reviewed.
The FBI tracks “justifiable homicides” committed by law enforcement officers, and tallied 426 in 2012. But those numbers are self-reported and fall far short of being reliable. Only four jurisdictions listed a total of five police shootings in Ohio that year, missing a fatal shooting in Springfield and possibly others.
Of the incidents reported to the FBI in 2012, roughly 31 percent of the people killed by police were black, while roughly 88 percent of the officers involved in those shootings were white.
Beavercreek police officers shot and killed John Crawford after 911 callers reported he had a rifle and was pointing it at children. After the shooting, officers found it was actually a BB gun he had picked up from one of the shelves in the store. Family members have said he planned to buy the gun.
A nine-member grand jury will hear evidence on whether the two officers committed any crimes. A vote by seven of them is required to indict.
A grand jury indictment requires only “probable cause” that a crime was committed, not beyond a reasonable doubt, which would be the threshold in a criminal trial, noted Ric Simmons, a criminal law professor at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law.
The law allows officers to fire if they deem it necessary to prevent someone from using deadly force against them or another member of the public, based on “the reasonable belief of the officer at the time,” he said.
Unlike a regular trial where both sides argue guilt and innocence, in a grand jury the prosecutor presents facts and asks jurors to come to their own conclusion. This gives the prosecutor the ability to sway the jury by presenting or withholding facts, Simmons said.
“The reality is the prosecutor can pretty much control the grand jury,” he said.
Hamilton County assistant prosecutor Mark Piepmeier, who will present the Crawford case to grand jury, has handled several cases that resulted in officers being charged for their actions both on- and off-duty, according to Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who appointed Piepmeier.
One of those cases was the shooting of unarmed 19-year-old Timothy Thomas by Cincinnati police officer Stephen Roach in 2001, which kicked off rioting in Cincinnati. A Hamilton County grand jury charged Roach with negligent homicide and obstructing official business, both misdemeanors. Hamilton County Judge Ralph E. Winkler acquitted Roach of the charges.
Misdemeanor manslaughter is a common charge if a grand jury concludes an officer used poor judgment in determining that lives were in danger, Simmons said.
“If you intend to do something, that’s a much greater crime than if you’re negligent (and) accidentally do it,” he said.
DeWine since 2011 has presented five officer-involved shootings to grand juries. Three returned no charges against the officers, and two are pending.
‘The department does nothing’
Cases aren’t necessarily over with a grand jury decision. A grand jury declined to indict the officers involved in a 2012 shooting in Perry County, but a civil suit is currently pending in federal court.
Perry County Sheriff’s Deputy Kevin Starrett and another officer attempted to arrest Dustin Dugan on possession of a stolen vehicle, boxing his car in with their own unmarked vehicles. The officers say they identified themselves and that Dugan — who had a history of fleeing officers — tried to free the vehicle, which they said posed a risk to their safety. Starrett fired seven rounds, striking Dugan in the arm and chest. He survived.
Dugan and his passenger, who was not harmed, said they thought they were being robbed and didn’t hear the officers’ commands because their car radio was too loud. They were unarmed and the car wasn’t stolen.
Cincinnati attorney Al Gerhardstein, who is involved in the Dugan case, has sued on behalf of more than 20 people shot by police. Most of the cases were settled, he said, and he argues that departments do little to review their policies and make adjustments after shootings.
“Generally it’s a very poor administrative review of the shooting. Often times the department will let BCI (DeWine’s Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation) do the investigation. BCI very clearly explains to the department that they are doing a criminal investigation. Then the department gets back a report that there’s no crime or there’s no (grand jury indictment, so) the department does nothing.”
That’s not always the case. Dayton police officer Jack Brooks was fired in 2008 after he shot and killed Ricky Moore, who allegedly attacked Brooks after the officer questioned him about a nearby armed robbery. During a scuffle, Brooks shot the unarmed Moore in the head.
An internal police review found that Brooks, who was already on track to being fired, violated several city police policies in the incident.
More training needed?
The Crawford shooting matches a theme Gerhardstein says runs through his cases: police over-reacting to someone holding a weapon.
Officers responding to the Beavercreek Walmart on Aug. 5 were relayed messages from a 911 caller that Crawford apparently had a rifle and was attempting to load it. Only after he was gunned down did they learn it was a realistic-looking BB gun.
But even if the gun was real, Ohio law allows people to openly carry firearms, Gerhardstein said.
“We have a society that promotes gun ownership. So police must be trained to sort out threatening gun possession and non-threatening gun possession,” he said. “If we’re going to let citizens own, possess and carry guns then we have to train officers to approach them so they don’t escalate situations…and not treat our citizens like they are combatants in a war zone.”
Gerhardstein represents the estate of Larry Hensley, who was shot and killed by a Celina police officer in April 2013. Hensley had left his inoperable car at a shooting range and was walking down the street when a passing driver called 911 to report a man in sandals, no shirt and a cowboy hat twirling a gun.
Officer Andy Regedanz responded, found Hensley at an auto dealership and ordered him from behind to show his hands and drop the weapon. “I’m packing,” Hensley said, pulled the gun out of his waistband and started to turn. He was shot in the arm and back.
Clark County Prosecutor Andy Wilson, who presented the case to the grand jury, said Hensley was turning “aggressively,” though the weapon was not loaded. The officer was cleared.
The civil suit, which seeks unspecified damages, is pending in federal court.
‘Sir, I haven’t done nothing wrong’
In an interview from his hospital bed after he was shot on March 25, 2012, Denton Little admitted he was probably jaywalking when the officer asked for him to approach the cruiser. He was later convicted of jaywalking and four other misdemeanors.
“I said, ‘Sir, I haven’t done nothing wrong, I haven’t done nothing wrong,’” he said. “And I make it to the front of his car point blank range, he shoots me twice.”
“He jumps out of his car and he’s still hollering at me: ‘Where’s your hands? I can’t see your hands,” he continued. “At this point I can’t breathe, I can’t talk, I’m gasping for air, and I lose consciousness.”
In a court deposition, Smith, the officer who shot Little, said based on Little’s facial expression, refusal to follow orders and his movements, “It was apparent to me that this man was armed and that he was going to try and kill me.”
“I felt that my only option to stop this life-threatening assault was deadly force,” he said. “From a seated position, I unholstered my duty firearm and rapidly fired two shots at the man through the open window.”
In the civil suit, experts for Little and the city of Trotwood offered testimony on whether the shooting was justified. The city’s expert said Little’s demeanor, actions and failure to follow instructions gave Smith probable cause to fire. Little’s expert said Smith gave contradictory orders and opened fire immediately after unholstering his weapon instead of displaying it and threatening to fire.
Little is currently in prison. While the civil suit was proceeding, he was charged separately for cocaine possession, breaking into a Family Dollar Store and bribery.
Smith wasn’t reprimanded. In a deposition, he stated that he wasn’t questioned about the shooting prior to the civil suit.
Gerhardstein said, “Many times I feel like our lawsuits are the quality assurance for the risk management of the departments, and it shouldn’t be that way. They should have a rigorous review of officer-involved shootings, and I rarely see that happen.”
‘A steady stream of shots’
In many of the cases examined by the newspaper, officers appeared justified in their actions.
The Dayton neighbors of Alan Whitaker said officers had no choice when they opened fire on him on June 29, 2007.
Whitaker was shot and killed behind his ex-wife’s house near the garage at 1731 Gondert Ave. At the time, Paula Whitaker had a civil protection order, granted just four days before, against her former husband. In a petition for the order, Paula Whitaker wrote, “He tells me he has dreams of cutting my throat or blowing off my head.”
Brenda Tankersley looked out her living room window and saw a Dayton police officer walk by, gun drawn. More officers converged from the alley.
“I hear ‘Put the gun down. Put the gun down,’” she said, “and just like that it was pow (pause), pow, pow. There was maybe something like six shots. It was just a steady stream of shots.”
Officers said Whitaker fired once at them with a rifle, prompting them to return fire. Whitaker is one of 21 people killed in shootings by Dayton police since 1995, according to the newspaper’s archive records.
In May 2000, Dayton police officer Mary Beall decided not to fire at Raham Twitty, and paid with her life. Beall and Officer Shawn Smiley responded to a call that a man had fired a gun at his girlfriend. Twitty was armed and Smiley ordered him at gunpoint to drop his weapon. Beall, in an effort to negotiate with Twitty, put down her service revolver.
Twitty put his gun’s barrel to her neck and fired. Smiley fired back, wounding Twitty.
Beall died from an infection related to the wound in 2002. Twitty died in prison of natural causes in 2010.
Woman killed holding baby
One of the few cases Gerhardstein represented that resulted in criminal charges against an officer was the 2008 killing of Tarika Wilson in Lima. Wilson was shot and killed while holding her 13-month-old son, who was also wounded by the bullet.
That incident started with a search warrant served on Wilson’s home, looking for a man named Anthony Terry, who was wanted on drug charges and who often stayed there. During the raid, Lima police Sgt. Joseph Chavalia ran upstairs where Wilson was in a bedroom with her six children. Downstairs, officers arrested Terry and shot to death two pitbulls that reportedly charged at them.
When shots were fired downstairs, Chavalia said he thought someone was shooting at him. That’s when he shot Wilson as she held her baby.
A grand jury indicted Chavalia on misdemeanor charges of negligent homicide and negligent assault. A jury found him not guilty.
Gerhardstein sued Lima on behalf of Wilson’s family and negotiated a $2.5 million settlement.