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Who Killed Whom in Mount Airy? Hindsight Isn't Always 20-20

By Doug Trapp · July 14th, 2000 · Burning Questions
Did a Cincinnati cop break the rules and kill a child Sept. 1, or did a delinquent kid take a police officer's life?

Depending on your sympathies, you can criticize Officer Kevin Crayon for escalating a routine traffic stop into a lethal situation or you can criticize 12-year-old Courtney Mathis for driving without a license and disobeying a police officer, even as the officer was hanging from a moving car.

Whenever someone dies violently, especially when it involves police, people want answers. Whose fault was it? Did the officer follow the right procedures? What was the citizen doing?

But in this situation, can we put the blame on any one person?

This is the deadly chain of events in Mount Airy, as reconstructed by the Cincinnati Police Division. Mathis stopped at the United Dairy Farmers store at the corner of Colerain and Kirby avenues late Friday, Sept. 1. He went inside, asked for a funnel, kept looking outside, but didn't buy anything.

Officer Crayon parked next to a maroon Ford Taurus at about 12:40 a.m. Mathis left the store and got in the driver's side of the Taurus. Thinking Mathis looked too young to drive, Crayon approached and asked for his driver's license.

Mathis ignored Crayon and quickly backed the Taurus, almost hitting small children in the parking lot.

Crayon reached inside the vehicle with both hands, and Mathis drove out of the parking lot, dragging the officer along Colerain Avenue, swerving down the road.

Just north of Colerain Avenue and North Bend Road, Crayon was seen reaching for his gun while still clinging to the Taurus. He fired one shot, striking Mathis in the chest.

Crayon was thrown from the car, slid and came to a stop in front of a vehicle in a southbound turn lane. Mathis drove to his parents' home and told his family the police shot him. Crayon died at the scene, and Mathis died just after 5 a.m.

Officers are discouraged from reaching into cars, because it puts them in a vulnerable position, according to Ted Schoch, director of the Cincinnati Police Academy.

But what if Crayon didn't try to stop Mathis? Would the child have sped away and hit another car or a pedestrian? Crayon had only seconds to decide whether to intervene -- and how.

The officer's decision ended with two deaths, his own and the child's. If Crayon hadn't reached in, would Mathis have struck another car or pedestrian?

Schoch compared the incident to a broken play in football. Just as football players practice plays, police officers refine their techniques and study policies during training. And like a quarterback improvising after a play goes bad, Crayon had to react quickly to the situation in the parking lot.

"We don't have robots out there stopping cars for traffic violations," Schoch says.

But why was a 12-year-old driving? Why was he out so late at night? Why didn't he stop when told to? And why did he keep driving with a police officer hanging from the side of his car?

Deciding whether or not a police officer acted appropriately is difficult but not impossible, according to Keith Borders, chairman of the Citizen's Police Review Panel, which reviews citizens' complaints about police misconduct.

"Are there sometimes ambiguities? Yes," Borders says.

And sometimes there isn't enough evidence to figure out why something happened. (Borders says he can't comment specifically about the Crayon-Mathis incident because the panel might review it later.)

But there are standards police should use to decide when lethal force is necessary, and those can be reviewed in retrospect, Borders says The big question is, did the officer fear for his life? And did the officer aggravate the situation, or was it out of his hands? Stay tuned.



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