The actions of two white police officers were justified in the fatal shooting of a 22-year-old black man holding an air rifle inside an Ohio Walmart store, a grand jury determined Wednesday — using surveillance video the slain man's family said shows the shooting was completely unjustified.
The Greene County grand jury, which began hearing evidence on Monday in the racially charged case, opted against indicting the officers on murder, reckless homicide or negligent homicide charges after hearing testimony from 18 witnesses and listening to and viewing hours of audio and video recordings of the incident, special prosecutor Mark Piepmeier told reporters Wednesday.
The grand jury’s decision came just a few hours before the Justice Department said federal investigators would review whether the officers violated the civil rights of John Crawford III.
Crawford, who was black, was shot by police in Beavercreek, Ohio, on Aug. 5 while holding an air rifle his family said he had taken off a store shelf. Two white police officers responded to a 911 call reporting a man waving a gun, and according to police, shot Crawford after he didn't obey the officers' commands to put the weapon down.
"Based on the information the responding officers had and Mr. Crawford's failure to comply with the responding officers' orders, the officers did what they were trained to do to protect the public," the City of Beavercreek said in a statement.
The case is one of a number of incidents that have seen concerns raised over the shooting of black individuals by officers.
The Ohio shooting occurred just a few days before Ferguson, Missouri, police killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown, an incident that set off mass riots in the streets of Ferguson and is now under investigation by the Justice Department.
Since the shooting, Crawford's family had demanded public release of the surveillance footage, a request denied until Wednesday by Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine, who said releasing it earlier could taint the investigation and potential jury pool.
Video presented at a news conference by Piepmeier shows Crawford walking the aisles, apparently on his cellphone, and picking up an air rifle that had been left, unboxed, on a shelf.
Crawford carries the air rifle around the store — sometimes over his shoulder, sometimes pointed at the ground — before police arrive and shoot him twice.
Exactly what happens in Crawford's final moments is difficult to make out: Crawford is at the far end of an aisle in view of one camera, the officers' feet are in view of another. Neither feed has audio, and one officer's flinching foot is used as the basis for determining when shots were fired.
"We tried the best we could to try to determine the relative position of these two people when the shot was fired," Piepmeier said.
Crawford's family said it was "incomprehensible" that police were not indicted.
"The Crawford family is extremely disappointed, disgusted and confused," the statement said. "They are heartbroken that justice was not done in the tragic death of their only son."
The U.S. Department of Justice said it would review the facts and circumstances surrounding the shooting. Crawford's family has sought a federal investigation to see if race was a factor.
Prosecutor Stacey DeGraffenreid, who assisted Piepmeier, said Crawford was shot twice by one officer, once in the elbow and once in the side under the rib area slightly from the front to the back. DeGraffenreid says Crawford was shot while holding the rifle, then dropped it, falling to the floor. She says no other shots were fired.
"This was a real tragedy," DeGraffenreid said in a telephone interview. But she said that based on what information the officers had when they entered the Walmart store, they were doing what they were trained to do.
U.S. Attorney Carter Stewart in Columbus, Ohio released a statement saying the department's Civil Rights Division, the FBI, and his office will conduct an independent review of the case.
The city of Beavercreek said it was asking the FBI to conduct a review. DeWine said after the grand jury's decision was announced that he thought it is an appropriate time for the Justice Department to look into whether any federal laws were violated.
DeWine said state authorities have been in frequent contact with federal officials and will turn over requested investigative files to them.
Representatives of the Dayton, Ohio NAACP said the video clips presented by the prosecutor don't show imminent danger that would justify Crawford's fatal shooting.
"The tragedy is that once again, our criminal justice system has failed our community," said Lori Coleman, who leads the Dayton NAACP's criminal justice committee.
Dayton NAACP President Derrick Foward called the grand jury's decision "unbelievable."
But Lori Shaw, a University of Dayton law professor who has been following the case, said she was not surprised with the grand jury's decision.
"I think in this particular instance, because the police had reason to believe that a weapon was involved, it made it much less likely that there would be a charge," Shaw said.
She said with mass shootings that have taken place in a variety of public places, police can be under added pressure in such cases.
"We're in 2014 ... I think the public is a lot more on edge, and I'm sure that police are more on edge," she said. "It's a tragic situation all the way around."
Al Jazeera and wire services