** Warning as some of the links are to videos, articles or images which depict graphic violent encounters **
A couple of friends reached out to me immediately after the verdict was announced regarding the shooting death of Terence Crutcher (9/16/2016) in Tulsa, Oklahoma. They were asking my opinion on the shooting and what I felt personally about the verdict. Like many of you, I was watching this case, as it was another in the tragic list of shootings during 2016 that got national media attention. I thought there would be a plea bargain because of how fast the Tulsa police department pushed out the video evidence and the fact that Tulsa Police Chief Jordan called the video “disturbing and difficult to watch.” The DAs office quickly made a decision that they were seeking charges and issuing a warrant for the arrest of the officer involved, Betty Shelby, with the shooting. I figured her statements to investigators were so compelling that there would be no question to her guilt.
The above Terence Crutcher video tape was released on (9/19/2016). As you may recall, the shooting death of Keith Lamont Scott in Charlotte, NC happened that same week (9/20/2016). It sparked two days of unprecedented riots in the city of Charlotte with their residents calling for the police department to release their tapes. On that second day of the national attention received by Charlotte (9/22/2016) the Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler charged Shelby with first-degree manslaughter. As I watched the press release I thought, “This has to be a political move because of the riot going on in Charlotte and City officials in Tulsa probably didn’t want one in their city.”
As a human, I understand how family members of those killed during police encounter often find it unfair that police officers are allowed to get away with, in their words, “MURDER!” As a retired Lieutenant and trainer with over 15 years experience, I want to answer a few questions that might bring a little more knowledge and understanding in how a shooting, in my opinion that was unjustified, ended with a not guilty verdict.
So what are the “Rules of Engagement” and the standard used to decide if an officer used proper force? The easiest way to answer that question is to let you know the standard which is utilized by the United States Supreme Court following the 1989 decision of Graham vs. Oconnor. The court cautioned the following when making reference to use of force:
“The “reasonableness” of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.” It also reinforced, “As in other Fourth Amendment contexts… the ‘reasonableness’ inquiry in an excessive force case is an objective one: the question is whether the officers’ actions are ‘objectively reasonable’ in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation.”
It is because of the above ruling most agencies in the early 1990’s adopted policies and some type of articulable scale (Use of Force Continuum) to assist officers in making decisions as to the type of force to use in a certain situations. It was most likely one of the deciding factors used to come to the conclusion in the Terence Crutcher shooting. It provides law enforcement administrators, attorneys, judges and jurors guidance in determining if the officer acted in accordance to their agencies guidelines, responded as they were trained and responded like any other reasonable officer in that situation. Currently, there isn’t one set national Use of Force Continuum form and with 18,000 police agencies across the nation, there is no uniformed standard of training. This is one reason each use-of-force incident, especially those involving deadly force, must be assessed by each individual case. Note that the Supreme Court additionally takes into account the fluidity of the encounter:
The United States Supreme Court, in the case of Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, (1989), held that when engaged in situations where the use of force is necessary to effect an arrest, or to protect an officer’s life or that of another, a law enforcement officer must act as other reasonable officers would have acted in a similar, tense, rapidly evolving situation.
It is my professional opinion, in the case of the Crutcher shooting, that it could have been avoided. Officer Shelby stated she had cleared the vehicle visually for persons (front and back compartments); I believe a weapon in plain sight would have been obvious. According to Tulsa investigators no weapon was found on his person or in the vehicle after the shooting. Now, I personally believe the color of his skin and his size was more of a factor adding to her level of fear. It is etched in all of our minds that black men are more violent than their white counterparts. It is sad truth that the media, movies and other platforms have painted a dark picture that we all hold and believe. So even if she prejudged, I still feel that she shot because of her fear and it had nothing to do with hate.
I’ve had several calls over the years with people showing signs of violence and bizarre behavior known as “Excited Delirium” following the drug PCP use and each time all I could pray for was to just get handcuffs on them. Although there was PCP later found in Crutchers system, he was of sound mind enough to know to hold his empty hands over his head as he slowly walked back to his car. If you listen to the 911 tapes by citizens reporting his behavior prior to officers arriving, the assumption should be made that he was on something or “high”. She was not provided that information from 911 operators most likely because she failed to share the need for another officer to assist, as many officers with 5 years of service or less do. Officer Shelby, as a certified Drug Recognition officer, had already concluded he was possibly on PCP. She should have called for help as a precaution to avoid having conflict with anyone suspected of being on PCP (here is an example of that behavior). Drug Recognition officers and those with experience understand the need for multiple officers to handle such and individual to keep it from escalating. By the time Officer Shelby requested backup, it was too late and in my opinion to keep the encounter from spiraling out of control. She should have been able to quickly size him up and that she would not be able to physically control this man alone. The call should have been made long before the third time he failed to comply to her commands and walked away (listen to her lawyer breakdown the scenario). In the story provided by her attorney, I’m sure most officers with more than 5 years on would agree, this did not have to play out the way it did. I’m not a small guy, yet I would have asked for another unit around the first time I asked him to get his hands out of his pockets. His unresponsiveness is another reason I would have made that choice. Again, a training issue…
Speaking of training, Officer Shelby testified:
Her police training taught her that “if a suspect reaches their hands inside of a car, don’t let them pull them out,” she testified.
“We’re not trained to see what comes out of a car,” Shelby said. “We’re trained to stop a threat, and by all indications, he was a threat.”
If her statements are true then Tulsa PD needs to correct their training to include the need to identify a weapon as the threat. I am not saying officers that should not think of their safety as they have the right to go home to their families. I absolutely don’t mean for officers to give up their tactical advantage and drop their guard; as no one wants to be ambushed which happens periodically. I believe officers require much more training on identifying threats, utilizing less-lethal weapons and calling for backup when needed to slow down accidental shootings (example).
Before we go too far, I want to answer a few questions. Do I believe Mr. Crutcher could have complied and kept this incident from escalating to deadly force? My answer is YES. This is why I share the importance of citizens doing their part to de-escalate. Should his history of encounters with the police and arrests be weighed in? Only if it were known to the officer prior to the shooting. It could be used along with any threats to retrieve or use a weapon and assist the officer in making the decision to pull the trigger. In this case the answer is NO, as Officer Shelby did not know him. The history of a person should not excuse away a shooting that is not legal. What truly matters is what happened in the 60 seconds prior to the decision to pull the trigger.
When I first saw the video, with the limited camera angles, my first assessment was she pulled the trigger in response to the sound after the taser made after it was deployed (Contagious Shooting) and that is why many agencies train to yell, “Taser Ready!” to keep lethal cover officers from shooting. And when I viewed her physical response,, collapsing due to overwhelming emotions immediately following the shooting, it made me lean towards her second guessing her decision to shoot. Then when she stood by the defense of she shot him because he was a threat I thought maybe she didn’t see the secondary officer who had the taser… I figured stress of the incident launched her into early physiological effects associated with deadly force encounters. Studies have shown someone could easily work themselves into natural responses, like tunnel vision and audio exclusion, where the mind begins to prepare the body for the threat and deadly force. I found my assessment of the onset of tunnel vision was later supported by Officer Shelby’s statements three days after the shooting, when she talked to Tulsa police investigators (in her own words). She told them she had never been so afraid in her life and did not know the other officers were beside her before she shot him. The medical examiner testified that the angle the bullet entered the body suggested Mr. Crutcher was falling to the ground, prior to being shot, most likely being caused by the taser deployment.
So where does this verdict leave us? It doesn’t matter what I think or what anyone reading this article thinks. Many people are again disappointed in the justice system and law enforcement as a whole. We still have to respect the decision of those 12 people who had to make a call on ALL the evidence that was presented before them. It is a heavy weight upon those jurors yet they have to go by the instructions of the judge and court. They can’t step outside of their duties to seek an appropriate verdict, just to satisfy a large portion of the population who only saw the video evidence and have already convicted Officer Shelby in the court of popular opinion. Please review this “Open Letter from the Jury” that was released to the media post trial that provides insight as to why they rendered the “Not Guilty” verdict. Understand, there are approximately 850,000 officers across the nation. The Washington Post reported for two years in a row (2015 and 2016) that just over 900 police officers each of those years were involved in deadly force encounters (.1%). The majority of those incidents are in response to guns and other weapons used by the deceased; with officers reacting to a real or perceived threat. The smallest of the numbers are those incidents that can only be described as nothing more than criminal. You can just look at the Walter Scott shooting in South Carolina or the most recent example of 15 year old Jordan Edwards in Texas being killed by an on-duty officer who lied about a threat of his own safety. There are other cases that are “cut and dry” incidents where officers stepped on the other side of the law; and they were sent to prison.
We live in a time that technology has now allowed us to capture more incidents on our camera phones and share what we see. I really don’t believe the number of these incidents are growing like some feel they are. You have to remember the visual evidence is only part of what is used to determine the entire story. Although some of the above examples are clearly “bad shootings” the majority are not. You should be willing to wait on the rest of the evidence before you lock into a position or opinion. We are okay with accepting multiple camera angles with NBA and NFL rulings but not police shootings. As Americans, we must allow the system to work itself out, no matter how flawed it is. And understanding the justice system is broken you should see the importance of knowing your laws, police procedures and demanding change through proper means.
In closing, please remember each case is unique to the circumstances presented and responses by both sides. These situations are fluid and officers could go from stepping out of their cars to pulling the trigger of their firearm within seconds of arriving. Many times the decision to use deadly force is made within a split second of perceiving a threat of life. These are two humans locked into a dangerous moment in time and we all have the luxury of sitting back six months to study a decision they made in six seconds. Don’t be angry at your friends for having the opposite opinion of something that you feel in your heart is just wrong. The justice system is not always righteous and the behavior of some officers is at times questionable to say the least. Citizens, If you observe an officer struggling with a person on the side of the road don’t just video the incident, call 911 to get him/her some help to do your part in stopping the escalation. Otherwise, do your part as a citizen to de-escalate your own encounters so you can live to complain. Police department heads, need to have hiring reform and do a better job of bringing in the right people for the job and when they find a problem employee they don’t just shuffle them around the department or use them as agents of punitive enforcement. Go beyond the policy of just calling an ambulance and teach officers how to render aid; it is just the right thing to do. Politicians, stop abusing your power and denying increases in manpower or equipment request to satisfy your personal agendas. Create policies and legislation that supports mandatory training for officers and work with the community. Officers, please demand more training, manpower and less-lethal options. Do not allow the small percentage of “bad apples” to exist on your police departments because those habitual offenders (using unnecessary and excessive force) affects you ALL.
I hope this article was helpful, thank you for reading, share if compelled.
Join the movement and make your own personal Pledge to de-escalate by clicking here – we ALL need to go home alive.