The Corner

Law & the Courts

The Tulsa Police Shooting: ‘We Have to Let Justice Take Its Course’

Late last Friday, September 16, Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby encountered a seemingly abandoned SUV in the middle of the road, blocking traffic. A man approached her, acting (Shelby says) oddly. Within minutes Shelby had called for backup, and then fired a single shot at Terence Crutcher, a 40-year-old black man, killing him. Crutcher was unarmed.

In the days that followed, the Tulsa Police Department released two videos of the incident, a helicopter shot and the footage from a patrol car’s dash cam. Because it was not immediately clear why Officer Shelby had fired at Crutcher, the footage set off a firestorm. Protests erupted. Press conferences were called. The Crutcher family acquired legal counsel. The U.S. Department of Justice announced it would open an inquiry into any potential civil-rights abuses.

My hometown newspaper, the Tulsa World, reports:

The footage reveals discrepancies in the department’s initial statements from the scene Friday night.

Police initially said Crutcher approached officers from the side of the road after [Officer Tyler] Turnbough arrived. However, video footage from Turnbough’s patrol car shows Crutcher walking to his vehicle with his hands raised and that Shelby had her gun pointed at his back.

After Crutcher reached the driver’s side of his vehicle and turned toward the window, Shelby, Turnbough and a third officer each had either a gun or a Taser pointed at him.

The officers’ positions on Turnbough’s dash camera video footage obscures much of the shooting, but Crutcher can be seen falling to the ground after one gunshot. Shelby then says, “Shots fired!” over the radio, telling dispatchers, “I’ve shot a subject who won’t show me his hands.”

An attorney for the Crutcher family previously said his hands were up when he was shot.

Shelby’s attorney, Scott Wood, says Crutcher had repeatedly ignored verbal orders and warnings before Crutcher seemingly attempted to reach into the vehicle through the driver’s-side window. When Crutcher’s “left hand goes through the car window . . . that’s when [Shelby] fired the shot,” Wood told the press.

But attorney David Riggs, representing the Crutcher family, says Shelby had already secured the driver’s side of Crutcher’s SUV.

“If that’s true, she knew there was no gun in the car, even if the window had been down,” Riggs said.

Without attempting to parse the video footage or play the role of forensic investigator, we can say, at the very least, that this one looks bad. Perhaps Shelby made the correct decision, in the interest of her own lawful right to self-defense, in shooting Crutcher. Perhaps she panicked and responded with unlawful force. Many questions will be asked and answered in the next weeks and months: Did the officers involved have the appropriate training? Were they properly equipped (Shelby reportedly did not have a Taser)? Was the police department prompt and forthcoming with information about the incident?

In the end, those answers could be unsatisfying. If Shelby acted inappropriately, the law gives wide latitude to an officer who, in good faith, believes his life to be in danger; it’s possible that Shelby could only be disciplined administratively (up to and including termination from the police department) without any formal criminal charges being filed. It’s possible that prosecutors may try for a manslaughter case. But even if it is determined that Shelby acted properly under the circumstances, Terence Crutcher’s kids still lost a father — and Tulsa lost a son.

Regardless, justice can only be served by working within the system. Extra-legal vigilantism or, worse, the rioting this week in Charlotte, N.C. is inexcusable. “We have to let justice takes its course,” Rodney Goss, the pastor of the predominantly black Morning Star Baptist Church on Tulsa’s north side, told the Tulsa World. Yes, yes exactly. Waiting for the process to play out, for all the facts to come in, and for justice to be served under the rule of law is the mark of a mature citizenry. As of now, Tulsans have shown themselves worthy of that name.

A tragedy all around. May justice be done, even if it’s bittersweet.