The latest case of police killing an unarmed black person — the one in Tulsa last Friday — is jaw-dropping and maddening.
Even though one officer was preparing to Taser 40-year-old Terence Crutcher, who was presenting no apparent threat, a 42-year-old officer named Betty Shelby fatally shot him in the chest as he stood beside the driver’s window of his broken-down SUV.
Shelby was one of three officers (the other two were men) dealing with Crutcher, who seemed, in police video, to be walking a bit aimlessly. Far from being menacing, Crutcher was walking slowly, away from the officers, back toward his vehicle in the seconds before Shelby shot him.
Shelby’s attorney said today that Crutcher ignored officers’ commands, kept touching his pocket and was reaching through a window of his SUV when he was killed. Shelby is a five-year veteran of the Tulsa Police Department and was a sheriff’s deputy before that.
Police Chief Chuck Jordan said Monday, before police video and audio recordings were released, that Crutcher had no weapon on him or in his SUV when he was shot.
In the video, from the cautious way officers approach, Crutcher appears to have been acting strangely. An attorney for Crutcher’s family said Crutcher looked like “someone in distress, someone needing help from either a mental or a medical condition — perhaps intoxicated, but in a condition of needing assistance of the police.”
The strangest and most damning part of the recordings is the audio. The listener hears the voices of two or three male officers, one of whom is in a police helicopter. Here’s part of the dialogue among the male officers in the seconds before the shooting. It’s not clear if Shelby can hear the exchanges.
— “All right, Betty Jo, where you at?”
— “He’s got his hands up there for her now.”
— “Time for Taser, I think.”
— “That’s kinda the feelin’ that’s about to happen.”
— “That looks like a bad dude, too.”
— “Where are you facing?”
At that moment, in the video, Crutcher goes down to the ground, grabs his chest and rolls onto his back.
— “Westbound” comes the answer to the previous question of direction. After a pause, the officer says, “I think he may have just been Tasered.” (In fact, one officer did use a Taser on Crutcher about the same time Shelby fired her service weapon.)
A couple of seconds later, Shelby says in a loud, quavering voice, “Shots fired!”
Now, I know things happen quickly in tense situations like that, but the video and audio raise a few key points:
First, if Shelby was hearing the chatter, she should have known one of her fellow officers was getting ready to employ his Taser.
Second — again, if she was hearing the chatter — how might she have been influenced by the oral observation that Crutcher “looks like a bad dude.” In my opinion, that could easily have planted the notion with Shelby that Crutcher was dangerous.
Third, if Shelby wasn’t hearing the chatter, why would she not ask the officers standing beside her if either of them was preparing to use the Taser? She must have known one of the other two officers had a Taser, but there is no indication the officers were talking among themselves, although they had plenty of opportunity to do so. All it would have taken was six words: “Are you going to Taser him?”
Instead, it appears each of the three officers was operating in his or her own world, determining how he or she should proceed. This inebriated or addled man had those three officers so flummoxed they didn’t know what to do. Either of the male officers could have jumped the guy at any time and taken him to the ground. Crutcher was big, but, as one of the family’s attorneys said, he appeared to be in a compromised condition. He certainly didn’t look like he was ready to start throwing punches or resisting vigorously.
I noted there is no indication the three officers were communicating with each other or formulating a take-down plan. Oddly, at the end of the video, after Crutcher is down, bleeding profusely and not moving, the three officers decide to act in unison.
With shoulders touching, they slowly back away from Crutcher’s motionless body — guns still pointing straight ahead — as if tiptoeing away from the door at a surprise party as the honored guest prepares to enter.
It’s almost comical, except for the mindless, reflexive shooting that took place seconds earlier.