CANTON – Don't rush to judge the split-second actions of the city police officer who shot and killed a man celebrating the new year by repeatedly firing an AR-15 rifle into the air.
That's the message from Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost and law enforcement training experts contacted by The Canton Repository after police publicly released a four-minute body camera video from the Jan. 1 fatal confrontation.
While expressing sympathy for James Williams' family, Yost doesn't sugarcoat the magnitude of Williams' actions that night.
"It’s a stupid and extraordinarily dangerous thing to do — to shoot a gun off in the air — and it’s a crime and it can be a serious crime depending on what the consequences of it are," Yost told The Canton Repository.
Williams, 46, was standing outside his 10th Street SW home on his patio behind a wooden fence when he fired a barrage of about 30 bullets into the air with an AR-15, celebrating the new year just minutes after midnight on Jan. 1.
A Canton police officer investigating an earlier call for gunshots in the area fired repeatedly through the fence, killing Williams. The unnamed officer, according to the initial news release from the police, feared for his safety.
Canton police release body cam footage
Williams' widow and family supporters have questioned the officer's actions. A vigil was held at the home Wednesday night. Many who spoke demanded police accountability and some called for the officer's arrest.
But Yost is asking the public and Stark County residents to reserve judgment until more facts are in.
"Today is not the day for judgment," he said.
Yost said the body camera footage raises questions regarding the circumstances of the shooting, but added that you can't make judgments based on a single source of information.
"How many times have we been watching a football game and we thought it was a fumble and it turns out on official review that shown on another camera angle the runner was down, or the pass was incomplete, or they were out of bounds?" he said.
With most body camera devices, audio begins recording 30 seconds after the device is turned on. That is why half a minute of audio is missing from the Canton police officer's camera footage that was released.
Yost said Williams should not have been firing a weapon in the air.
"There are no magic bullets. When that bullet leaves the gun and goes up into the air, it’s going to hit something. Maybe it’s going to hit a roof or the ground. Maybe it’s going to hit someone in the head and kill somebody," Yost said.
Yost also expressed his sympathy for the family.
"Regardless of whether this was legally proper or not, any death is a tragedy and I can’t even imagine the grief and sorrow for this man’s family and my heart goes out to them," Yost said.
Experts breakdown officer's body cam video, response to gunfire
Tim Dimoff is president of SACS Consulting & Investigative Services Inc., an Akron security consulting and investigation firm.
He's a nationally recognized expert in law enforcement training and procedures and use of force, and has more than 40 years of experience, previously serving as an Akron police detective and on a federal law enforcement task force.
Dimoff reviewed the body camera video at the request of The Canton Repository.
"This officer is all of the sudden looking for the person that potentially already fired shots according to the report or dispatch, and all of the sudden this officer is hearing an immense amount of firing going off — and he's very close to it — and if he felt that it was a potential deadly danger or (presented) serious injury to himself, he's going to be totally justified in firing back at that subject to protect him and or others," Dimoff said.
The officer's perspective is going to be crucial in determining the proper response, Dimoff said.
He questioned how many calls were made that night about the shots fired in the area, the stories people told dispatchers, and the descriptions given to the officer.
"What kind of information was this officer fed all along? He responded. He's in a caution mode and lots of things are going on — and a lot of these things need to be taken into consideration," Dimoff said.
"Once the rapid firing of a firearm started happening in the case, the officer only has milliseconds to decide what to do and to protect himself, bystanders, and others," Dimoff added.
Dimoff agrees with Yost.
"Attorney Yost is correct. Don't let a video totally dictate what your opinion is because many times the videos don't capture the entire story," he said.
Why didn't the officer announce himself? Why shoot through a fence?
Dimoff said he believed the officer had to make a split-second decision based on seeing the amount of rapid fire from the AR-15 and being unable to clearly see the subject.
Williams was standing behind a 6-foot fence, Dimoff said, making it more difficult for the officer to totally understand the circumstances.
"He could not see more clearly the body of the subject to determine if the subject was turning towards the officer or lowering his weapon," he said. "The fence definitely was a hindrance to the officer to make a judgment call but once again, you did have rapid-fire, the loud firing of a firearm in the middle of the night."
Canton Police Chief Jack Angelo said in a statement after the shooting that the officer "confronted a subject that began shooting a firearm."
The Canton Repository asked Dimoff whether or not the officer was required to announce himself upon arrival on scene, after body camera shows the officer fire, then yell "Police! Get down now!"
"It's not a requirement and it's not feasible for an officer involved in a shooting to always be able to verbalize before they respond in a matter of milliseconds when someone is firing a gun," Dimoff said. "So it's not always mandatory that you have to give a verbal warning, especially when you feel someone is pointing a gun at you and is about to shoot you or has already fired a shot or two at you."
He said officers across the country are trained whenever you can to announce yourself, to verbalize commands, and to de-escalate your aggression to the subject.
"That is always part of the training and the protocols, but, even having that be part of the established training, there are circumstances where you come upon somebody and they just start firing their gun," Dimoff said. "It's not feasible to verbalize a warning or cease and desist because of the confrontation or the closeness and severity of the attack."
According to Dimoff, it's not a matter as to whether the subject could hear the officer's commands or not, it is a matter as to whether or not the officer had time to yell any commands because the aggression was happening all of the sudden.
"It's happening in succession. The subject didn't shoot one bullet and stop, shoot another bullet and stop, it was the succession of very powerful firing — from a very powerful firing rifle," he said.
Dimoff believes the biggest issue will be the AR-15 and the repeated shots fired into the air.
"I'm pretty confident that's going to be the focus of the debate," Dimoff said.
What goes up, must come down
Emanuel Kapelsohn is the president of The Peregrine Corp., an internationally-recognized firearms and use of force training consultation firm in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
For more than 40 years, he has instructed police and security officers, federal agents, military personnel and civilians regarding firearms and tactics, and has been a use-of-force expert in trials across the nation.
Kapelsohn also reviewed the four-minute body camera video at the request of The Canton Repository. He declined to offer an opinion about whether the officer's response was justified without additional facts.
But he did speak about general police standards.
"The general standard nationwide is that an officer is justified in using deadly force, firing his gun at someone when he has an objectively reasonable belief that he or someone else is in danger of suffering death or bodily injury if the officer doesn't fire," Kapelsohn said.
Even if a suspect were firing the gun up in the air, he could level it and fire through the fence in a quarter of a second, he said.
"This officer has reason to believe his life is in danger if he is that close to someone who was recklessly — almost insanely — firing 30 rounds from that rifle ... and that everyone else's lives in the neighborhood and people's lives who might even be more than one or two miles away or more than two miles away. That would be consistent with an officer firing to protect life, to protect against death or serious injury," Kapelsohn said.
"Thirty rifle bullets fired into the air in Canton, Ohio, come down out of the air. Each one of those bullets lands somewhere in or near Canton, Ohio," he said.
Someone firing those bullets has no clue where those bullets are going to land, Kapelsohn said, adding that a bullet comes down from the sky with sufficient energy to kill or maim someone.
"Every one of the bullets is a potential death or crippling injury," Kapelsohn said.
According to Kapelsohn's research, a rifle bullet can travel anywhere from two to five miles away.
"A typical handgun bullet can go a mile or slightly over a mile and a rifle bullet will go several times that distance," Kapelsohn added.
What's next for the investigation?
The state Bureau of Criminal Investigation, part of the Ohio Attorney General's Office, was asked to handle the case on behalf of the Canton Police Department, which is common with officer-involved shootings in Ohio.
Last year, BCI investigated 62 officer-involved critical incidents, said Yost, and has never dealt with a case involving celebratory gunfire.
"The process needs to be done independently and expertly and that’s why they call us in," he said. "The investigation is expected to last anywhere between several weeks to a couple of months as we are in the process of conducting interviews and gathering evidence."
Here's how the BCI investigation works:
After the investigation is completed, the report is provided to the local prosecutor’s office and, with the prosecutor’s approval, to the requesting agency. Those entities may then use the findings to determine the appropriateness of the officer’s actions.
As a fact-finding agency, BCI does not determine whether a use of force was legally justified, nor does it make recommendations regarding charges and/or the appropriateness of the use of force. Those decisions rest with the prosecuting attorney and/or grand jury.
Additionally, BCI’s investigations are not administrative, meaning they do not address any potential policy or procedural violations. BCI is not involved in any decisions pertaining to internal discipline or the involved officer’s return to work.
Reach Cassandra at email@example.com; Twitter @Cassienist
This article originally appeared on The Repository: Dave Yost, law enforcement experts comment on James Williams shooting