Tulsa, Oklahoma police officer Betty Shelby will face first-degree manslaughter charges after shooting and killing an unarmed Terence Crutcher. Shelby was responding to an unrelated call when she noticed Crutcher’s stalled car in the middle of the road. Shelby, via her lawyer, has stated that Crutcher was non-compliant to her orders, was moving in a threatening way and only shot when she saw Crutcher reaching through the window of his car for a weapon.
As can be seen in the video above and according to at least some statements by fellow officers, Crutcher was seemingly not acting in a threatening or dangerous manner. His hands are raised above his head, makes no sudden movements towards the officers and no weapon was found following the shooting. However, there remains some disagreement as to exactly what the video shows and the video does not show the approximately 1 minute and 30 seconds of the interaction between Shelby and Crutcher which occurred prior to the arrival of additional officers and when the videos begin.
Critics have jumped on this incident as another instance of institutionalized racism, social injustice and racial inequality. Another in a seemingly unending string of interactions between law enforcement and black people which ends in violence. Set these aside for a moment, however. Forget that police kill a disproportionate number of black people. Never mind that audio from the helicopter above the scene of the Crutcher incident described him as a “big, bad dude” prior to the shooting. What is most telling and what gets to the heart of the problem is Shelby’s account of the shooting.
Here is Shelby’s account as told by Scott Wood, her lawyer via ABC News:
“Shelby and another officer were on their way to a domestic violence call when she came across the SUV.
“On her way to that call, Shelby saw Crutcher standing in the middle of the road, looking down at the ground, adding that she would have stopped and checked up on him had she not been on the other call.
“She then saw the SUV parked in the middle of the street, obstructing traffic in both directions. The engine was running when she got there, which she found odd because she assumed it was either disabled or broken down.
“When Shelby approached the car, the doors were closed, and the windows were open. She looked into the passenger’s side to make sure no one was on the floor of the car, and as she was getting ready to move to the driver’s side, she turned around and saw Crutcher walking toward her.
“Shelby then said to Crutcher, ‘Hey, is this your car?’.
“Crutcher didn’t respond, simply dropping his head while continuing to look at Shelby, ‘kind of under his brow’. Crutcher then began to put his hand into his left pocket…Shelby told Crutcher, ‘Hey, please keep your hands out of your pocket while you’re talking to me. Let’s deal with his car’.
“Crutcher did not respond, so Shelby ordered him again to get his hand out of his pocket. He then pulled his hand away and put his hands up in the air, even though he was not instructed to do so, which Shelby found strange.
“Shelby tried to get Crutcher to talk to her, but he simply mumbled something unintelligible and stared at her. He then turned and walked to the edge of the roadway and turned to look at her, his hands still in the air. He put his hands down and started to reach into his pocket again and she ordered him again to get his hands out of his pocket.
“At this point, Shelby, a drug recognition expert, believed Crutcher was ‘on something’, possibly PCP.
“Shelby then radioed in that she had a subject ‘who is not following commands’.
“You can kind of hear a degree of stress in her voice when she says that,” said Wood.
“Shelby then pulled out her gun and had Crutcher at gunpoint as she commanded him to get on his knees. She pulled out a gun instead of a Taser because she thought he had a weapon, and she was planning to arrest him for being intoxicated in public and possibly obstructing the investigation.
“Shelby ordered Crutcher to stop multiple times as Crutcher walked toward the SUV with his hands up.
“As the video from the helicopter begins, Crutcher was ‘angling’ toward his car while Shelby repeatedly commanded him to stop. His hands were still in the air.
“As a police officer, you have to wonder — why would someone ignore commands at gunpoint to get to a certain location?” Wood said.
“Crutcher’s arms came down, and he turned to face the car and he reached into the driver’s side window with his left hand. That’s when Shelby fired one shot and a fellow officer, Tyler Turnbough, deployed a Taser.
“Shelby believed that when Crutcher attempted to reach into the car, he was retrieving a weapon, Wood said. In her interview with homicide detectives, she said, ‘I was never so scared in my life as in that moment right then’.”
Aside from Shelby’s attorney making obvious attempts to establish reasonable doubt, this statement raises numerous questions. If Shelby, as a “drug recognition expert”, recognized Crutcher may have been on drugs, what about his behavior was so abnormal? If Shelby, as a “drug recognition expert”, thought Crutcher was on drugs, why was his behavior so threatening to her? If Crutcher is making no sudden movements and making no overtly threatening gestures, why did Shelby decide to draw her gun instead of her Taser? If Shelby had already drawn her gun, why did she feel so threatened when he seemingly made a move towards his car window?
As evidenced in this statement, in each and every step Shelby made questionable decisions. Decisions which would appear to contradict effective policing. Even if Crutcher had a weapon as Shelby thought because he kept reaching towards pockets, and if he was non-compliant because of the drugs, and he was “angling” towards his car and he made some sort of movement towards the window, how did anything Shelby do help the situation? As described by prosecutors in the case, Shelby “reacted unreasonably by escalating the situation from a confrontation with Mr. Crutcher, who was not responding to verbal commands and was walking away from her with his hands held up, becoming emotionally involved to the point that she overreacted.”
It’s racism. Not racism as in Shelby hated Crutcher because he was black. Racism as in Crutcher was perceived as a threat because he was black. Police can use deadly force if they merely perceive a threat. “Legally, what most matters in these shootings is whether police officers reasonably believed that their or others’ lives were in danger, not whether the shooting victim actually posed a threat”. An “objectively reasonable” belief there is a threat. While immensely subjective and contextually contingent, the intention is to give law enforcement the needed latitude to make split-second decisions to save the lives of themselves and others.
The problem is that threats are inherently subjective. Subjectivity leads to bias and stereotyping. In studies of racials bias conducted over the past decade researchers have found that participants were more likely to shoot targets depicting black people than those depicting white people. Because they feel a greater threat posed by black people. And when police are more likely to stop blacks, are more likely to use force on blacks and are more likely to shoot blacks when deemed warranted stereotypes and bias become deadly.
Assuming Shelby’s statement about feeling scared in that moment is true, she believed had an “objectively reasonable” belief there was a threat to her life. The problem is that there wasn’t. Shelby perceived a threat because of bias and stereotyping. And as evidenced by the many shootings which have occurred, Shelby is not alone.