What happened in the moments between is disputed. Police say Craven pulled a pistol from a holster after officers shouted commands for him to raise his hands and then drop to the ground. Craven’s wife and family attorney say he was complying with the orders and posed no threat to the officers.
On Friday, a county prosecutor assigned to the case announced he would not file criminal charges in connection with the shooting, finding that Mooresville police officers Alexander Arndt and Christopher Novelli reasonably feared for their lives when they opened fire on Craven. Body camera footage and other evidence backed up their account of the incident, Randolph County District Attorney Andy Gregson said.
“In this matter the officers were responding to a highly volatile and dangerous situation for them and the occupants of Mr. Craven’s home,” Gregson said in a five-page report. “Officers under such circumstances are justified in applying deadly force to stop the threat.”
But Craven’s wife and attorney reject Gregson’s conclusions, saying the body-camera footage — which has not been released publicly — doesn’t support the official version of events.
“The family of Chris Craven now understands the suffering of so many other families at the hands of a corrupt law enforcement system,” Amy Craven said Saturday in a statement to The Washington Post. She called the district attorney’s findings “a tale of twisted stories where unsubstantiated statements from the officers are mixed into the explanations of the video to create a story that suits the narrative the MPD wishes was the truth.”
The killing is one of more than 900 fatal shootings by U.S. law enforcement over the past year, according to tracking by The Post, and reflects a long-simmering national debate over how officers respond to people experiencing mental health crises. Mental illness was a factor in about a quarter of all fatal police shootings over the past six years, and such shootings are more likely to take place in small- and midsized metropolitan areas like Mooresville, according to The Post’s database.
Officers are seldom charged and even less frequently convicted in fatal shooting cases. In North Carolina, state law allows police to use deadly force when it “reasonably appears” they need to defend themselves or others from potentially fatal harm by another person. U.S. case law, too, gives police broad protections when making split-second decisions about whether to open fire during what they perceive as an imminent threat.
In Charlotte, and Mecklenburg County, police work with a crisis intervention team that responds to people experiencing mental health crises. Just north in Iredell County, where Mooresville is the largest town, no such unit exists.
The Craven family’s attorney, Alex Heroy, said Craven had been dealing with anxiety and depression before he was shot and killed by police. He said months of lockdown from the coronavirus pandemic had worsened the emotional toll on Craven, who worked on a NASCAR racing team until the public health crisis put the sport on hold.
“He was at home. He was the teacher, he was doing the cooking, cleaning, doing it all,” Heroy said. “I think he wanted to be at work.”
Around 9:30 p.m. on Aug. 2, police got a 911 call from Craven’s residence reporting a domestic assault and saying Craven was threatening to take his own life, according to Gregson’s report. The caller said he had a concealed carry permit and was carrying a gun.
According to the report, Craven can be heard in audio of the call “threatening to kill himself, and the small children can be heard begging him not to and telling Craven that they love him.”
Officers arrived and found Craven in the driveway. They ordered him to “put his hands up and to get on the ground,” the district attorney said. According to the report, body camera footage showed that he “put his hands up for about one second,” then “took them down to the sides of his torso.”
At that moment, the report said, “Both involved officers stated that they then saw Craven reach into his waistband with his right hand and pull out a pistol.”
Arndt and Novelli opened fire. An autopsy and medical examiner’s report showed Craven was struck at least 15 times with .223-caliber rounds. Dozens of other rounds flew past him, some hitting the house behind him, where Craven’s wife and three children were still inside. Heroy, the family attorney, estimated that 40 to 50 rounds were fired in total. One shot punctured a fire extinguisher, which exploded, he said.
Body camera footage showed a 9mm pistol lying on the stairs near Craven’s body, according to the district attorney’s report. Officers performed lifesaving procedures on him, but he was pronounced dead at the scene.
In clearing the officers of wrongdoing, the district attorney said that the law does not require officers to be fired upon before they use deadly force and that they “do not and cannot shoot to wound” in such circumstances.
“It is clear from all of the evidence that at the time Officers Arndt and Novelli fired their duty rifles they were presented with an imminent threat of death or serious bodily injury from the actions of Mr. Craven,” Gregson said.
Craven’s wife said she pushed for months to see the body-camera footage, which in North Carolina can only be released with a judge’s approval. She was finally able to review it privately in April, according to Heroy, who said he plans to ask the court to release it to the public.
Heroy said the video doesn’t appear to show Craven pulling out a gun. He suggested Craven was confused by the rapid-fire orders given by police and that Craven may have been moving to lay on the ground when the officers shot him.
“His hands go in front of him when they’re coming down, which to me indicates he’s complying and getting on the ground,” Heroy said. “If you’re pulling a gun out of a holster, I’ve got to think you reach back.”
Heroy added that Craven was a supporter of police. Amy Craven, too, said her husband had taught their children to respect officers.
“Chris always supported good police,” she told the Charlotte Observer recently. “That’s just the way he was.”