It’s not easy to stand in the shoes of a police officer in immediate danger. But an Oklahoma jury proved it was up to the task. Last Wednesday evening, following nine hours of deliberation, jurors acquitted Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby of first-degree manslaughter in the death last September of a PCP-fueled black male suspect, Terence Crutcher. That confrontation, caught on video, gained national attention following accusations that Shelby, who is white, was racially motivated. Yet evidence indicates that any cop, regardless of race, would have acted similarly. That hasn’t dissuaded “civil rights” brigades, from Al Sharpton to Black Lives Matter activists to Crutcher family members themselves, from insisting that a hate crime and cover-up were committed. Their accusations have no basis in fact.
National Legal and Policy Center described this incident and its context early last October, along with a similar one occurring during that time in Charlotte. Each incident involved a police officer fatally shooting an unruly black crime suspect. Though the cop in the Charlotte case was black, that made no difference to radical anti-white activists, such as Reverend Al Sharpton, or to the hundreds of blacks who rioted for three straight nights in that city’s downtown area. Sharpton had called for an investigation in that case, but otherwise was not materially involved. By contrast, he was materially involved in Tulsa, coaxing his friend, Benjamin Crump (in center of photo, flanked by Sharpton), to serve on the Crutcher family legal team.
Benjamin Crump, operator of a Tallahassee, Fla. boutique law firm with his partner, Daryl Parks, is a piece of work. He’s the most recent addition to the parade of lawyers over the decades recruited by Al Sharpton to represent aggrieved black families. And like his predecessors (to say nothing of Sharpton himself), he has a penchant for making wild, inflammatory accusations. His profile sharply rose several years ago when he represented the families of two deceased black teenagers, Trayvon Martin and Kendrick Johnson. Crump very loudly had insisted that each had been murdered and that police hid key evidence. This was nonsense. Trayvon Martin, without provocation, had assaulted a white neighborhood anti-crime patrol volunteer in Sanford, Fla., and might well have killed him were it not for the would-be victim, George Zimmerman, using his licensed handgun in self-defense. Zimmerman eventually would be found not guilty of murder and manslaughter by a state jury in July 2013. Kendrick Johnson, a high school student in Valdosta, Ga., died in a freak accident in his high school gym in January 2013. There was not a shred of evidence, contrary to the pumped-up assertions of Crump and Johnson’s parents, that a white classmate had murdered him or that police had orchestrated a cover-up. Last June, federal prosecutors, after a seemingly endless discovery process, announced they would not file any criminal charges.
Al Sharpton and Benjamin Crump, ever the racial politicians, weren’t about to let go of their Tulsa campaign. For months, they have been citing the death of Terence Crutcher as yet another manifestation of official white racism. Yet they had an ally in Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, who a mere six days after the incident charged a white cop on the scene, Betty Shelby, with first-degree manslaughter. Flanked by Crump and members of the Crutcher family, Sharpton held a press conference from the Harlem headquarters of his nonprofit group, National Action Network, to declare that prosecuting Shelby was merely a good start:
The first-degree manslaughter charges against this officer are a swift step in the right direction as we pursue justice in the death of Terence Crutcher. But we also look forward to a further investigation of all officers at the scene when this tragedy occurred and we are anxious to know whether the conduct of these other officers will be subject to disciplinary actions or legal proceedings.
Don’t try and smear this young man in death as you smeared his blood on that highway. We demand immediate justice! There ought to be an immediate trial, and an immediate trying of the evidence, and stop the judicial stalling. Because justice delayed is justice denied.
The Reverend Al and his Benjamin Crump were convinced this was a wanton killing and cover-up. They pointed to police helicopter video footage ostensibly backing up their claim. Crump, though not a prosecutor, would prove invaluable to the Crutcher family, instructing them to cooperate as little as possible with investigators. As befits a Sharpton ally, he saw this incident as a white-on-black “hate” crime. The full range of facts point to a much different conclusion.
Terence Crutcher led a troubled life. Since the mid-Nineties, the 40-year-old Tulsa native, a father of four, had amassed a long string of convictions for offenses that included petty larceny, driving with a suspended license, resisting arrest, drug trafficking and public intoxication. By the end of last August, he had three outstanding arrest warrants for drug trafficking, public intoxication and resisting a police officer. Part of the problem lay in his chronic use of drugs, especially PCP, a hallucinogen capable of inducing severe and dangerous changes in behavior. Clinical descriptions of its influence bear a strong resemblance to Crutcher’s behavior during the last minutes of his life. That also was the opinion of Officer Betty Shelby, who was trained to recognize the warning signs of PCP use.
A little after 7:30 P.M. on Friday, September 16, Tulsa police received a pair of “911” calls about an abandoned Lincoln Navigator idling in the middle of 36th Street North just west of Lewis Avenue. The doors were wide open. And the black driver, Terence Crutcher, had gotten out of the vehicle and was making a scene. Here’s how one caller described it: “It’s an SUV. It’s like in the middle of the street. It’s blocking traffic. There was a guy running from it, saying it was going to blow up. But I think he’s smoking something. I got out and was like, ‘Do you need help?’ He was like, ‘Come here, I think it’s going to blow up.’” The other caller similarly stated: “There is a car that looks like somebody just jumped out of it and left it in the center of the road on 36th Street North and North Lewis Avenue…The driver-side door is open like somebody jumped out. It’s on the yellow line, blocking traffic. Nobody in the car.” The police dispatcher was justified in calling a squad car to the scene. This was a matter of public safety.
Two cops arrived. One was Betty Jo Shelby. She actually had been on her way to a separate, domestic violence-related call, but along the way encountered Crutcher standing near his car. The second officer to arrive was Tyler Turnbough. Shortly after, a police helicopter arrived and hovered over the scene, recording video footage. At least one police vehicle dashcam also was operating. Shelby pulled her cruiser over, stopped and got out. She then asked Crutcher, “Hey, is this your car?” Crutcher did not respond, and instead drooped his head and placed his hand in his left pocket. Officer Shelby responded: “Hey, please keep your hands out of your pocket while you’re talking to me. Let’s deal with this car.” Once again, Crutcher did not respond. And once again, Shelby ordered him to get his hands out of his pocket. This time he complied. He then raised his arms even though he was not under arrest.
Officer Shelby again tried to coax Crutcher into talking. The suspect responded only with a stare and some unintelligible words, and then walked to the edge of the road. He then turned to look at her, his hands still in the air, and then put his hands down and began reaching into his pocket again. Shelby once more ordered him to get his hands out of his pockets. It was at this point, said her lawyer, that she suspected he was high “on something,” likely PCP. She radioed the dispatcher and said that she had a suspect “who is not following commands.” Believing Crutcher had a gun, she pulled out her service revolver and ordered him to drop to his knees. The suspect, rather than comply, walked toward his SUV with his hands up. Shelby and three other officers on the scene followed with weapons drawn.
This is where the confrontation turned lethal. According to the helicopter video, Crutcher headed toward his SUV with his hands still in the air. “As a police officer,” said Shelby’s attorney days later, “You have to wonder – why would someone ignore commands at gunpoint to get to a certain location?” Suddenly, Crutcher lowered his arms, turned to face the car, and reached into the driver’s side window with his left hand. At that moment, Officer Shelby fired her gun at Crutcher, hitting him in the chest. Barely a second later, Officer Turnbough used his Taser gun to further subdue the suspect. Crutcher was rushed by ambulance to a local hospital, but died later that evening. In a subsequent interview with homicide detectives, Shelby said that it appeared Crutcher was reaching into his car to retrieve a weapon. “I was never so scared in my life as in that moment right then,” she remarked. As it turned out, there was no weapon inside the vehicle. Yet more to the point, Shelby had good reason to believe there was a weapon.
The wheels of law and order would move quickly. On September 20, the Tulsa Police Department placed Officers Shelby and Turnbough on routine administrative leave, pending an investigation. And on September 22, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, perhaps fearing an outbreak of rioting by blacks of the sort engulfing Charlotte, charged Officer Shelby with first-degree manslaughter. The following morning, Shelby turned herself in to the county jail, where she was booked and released on a $50,000 bond. The feds also got into the act. On September 19, three days before the state charge, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it had opened a probe into possible violations of Crutcher’s civil rights. Local Black Lives Matter activists gathered at the county courthouse to demand prosecutions. And, of course, up in New York City, the Reverend Al was making his splashy statement, accompanied by members of the Crutcher family and their legal maestro, Benjamin Crump. These “civil rights” activists were convinced that this was a hate crime. Yet their campaign was as misguided and demagogic as earlier ones calling for the imprisonment of the “murderers” of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. Here are a few salient realities.
There was no apparent racial motive on Officer Betty Shelby’s part. While Sharpton and his allies have insisted from the start that Shelby had killed Terence Crutcher because he was black, there is no evidence of that. She did not exhibit any racial animus during the confrontation nor had she done so during previous encounters with criminal suspects. She shot Crutcher because she believed, rightly or wrongly, that her life was in danger. There was no evidence that she would have reacted differently had the suspect been white.
Terence Crutcher was high on PCP. There was no question that Crutcher had a long-term problem with PCP (formally known as phencyclidine, colloquially known as “angel dust”). Indeed, his own father had admitted as much in a 2012 police interview. Police lab tests following the shooting, in fact, showed that the interior of his vehicle contained a vial of PCP. And an autopsy revealed traces of the drug in his system. Most crucially, Crutcher’s behavior that fatal evening was consistent with the clinical literature on the effects of PCP. Short-term markers of its use include numbness, slurred or nonexistent speech, loss of motor coordination, a false sense of invincibility and generally erratic behavior. All this describes Terence Crutcher.
Officer Shelby’s behavior was not out of line with how other police would have behaved. A successful prosecution would have had to meet a high hurdle here. Back in 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Connor that police officers who use force in an emergency situation must be judged according to the full range of circumstances leading up to the moment of its use. Any prosecution must meet a standard of “objective reasonableness.” The guiding question must be: Would a similarly trained officer in an identical set of circumstances have reacted the same way? Using that standard, there is ample reason to believe that Shelby, age 43, a 10-year veteran of the Tulsa police force, behaved in a manner consistent with that of other cops faced with such a situation. The suspect had behaved in a wildly erratic manner, repeatedly refusing to respond to her requests. Observing the suspect reaching into his vehicle, she had a justifiable fear that he was going for a gun with the intention of using it. It would be a stretch to believe that a cop, even a black one, would have spurned any possibility of using force at that moment.
The trial jury had to consider these and other factors. Officer Shelby’s fate was in their hands. If convicted, she faced anywhere from four years to life in prison. The defense had its work cut out. The prosecution, as one could have expected, made race an issue. Steve Kunzweiler, the district attorney, told jurors that “skin color is an issue in this case.” Moreover, Shelby’s emotional state came under scrutiny. During opening statements on May 10, Assistant District Attorney Kevin Gray depicted her as an overly emotional cop with an irrational fear of Crutcher that caused him to bleed out in the street for more than two minutes before someone came to his aid. A fellow officer, David Montgomery, appeared to corroborate this view in testimony for the prosecution. He stated that Shelby became overtly emotional while waiting for police investigators to take her weapon and photograph and had asked repeatedly: “Why wouldn’t he listen? Why wouldn’t he follow commands?” Moreover, prosecutors pointed out, citing video footage, that while Crutcher’s behavior was erratic, it was not combative and hence not an immediate threat to life.
Lead defense attorney Shannon McMurray presented an alternative scenario. First, she said, video footage provided only a partial picture. In the two minutes prior to its commencement, Officer Shelby repeatedly ordered Crutcher to stop walking away from her and drop to the ground. In other words, her use of force was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Moreover, this was the first time in her entire decade on the force in which she had discharged her service weapon in the line of duty. And while Crutcher’s behavior was not overtly aggressive, there was reason to fear him notwithstanding. Not less than three people previously had called police earlier that day to report his erratic behavior, though Shelby was not aware of those reports at the time she encountered the suspect. Officer Tyler Turnbough, the cop who tasered Crutcher only seconds after the shooting, also testified, “It was obvious there was something that transpired before I arrived…The situation made me a little uneasy, a little edgy.” Defense Attorney McMurray also stated that prosecutors had misrepresented the testimony of one of her expert witnesses.
The 12 jurors, nine white and three black, deliberated for a little over nine hours, a clear sign they took the case seriously. On May 16, around 9:50 P.M., they walked into the courtroom and read the verdict: not guilty. While Officer Shelby may have erred in judgment, she did not commit a crime. Crutcher family members in the room reacted with shock and disgust. “Let it be known that I believe in my heart that Betty Shelby got away with murder,” declared Terence Crutcher’s father, Reverend Joey Crutcher. His twin sister, Tiffany, added that “a cover-up was exposed” during the trial, though she did not elaborate. Family members also insisted that Tulsa police had attempted to “demonize” him over drug possession – as if being high on angel dust had nothing to do with his behavior. Meanwhile, several dozen Black Lives Matter activists had gathered in a plaza outside the courthouse following the verdict, chanting: “No justice, no peace. No racist police.” Others sarcastically chanted, “Hands up! Don’t up!” The crowd eventually broke up a little after midnight.
Al Sharpton already had weighed in during a visit to downtown Tulsa at the invitation of the Crutcher family while the trial was in progress. Speaking at a nighttime rally on May 10, the Reverend Al told the crowd of about 300 at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame: “We are in court in Tulsa about an unarmed man who was killed. That’s what the trial is about.” He asked the audience a question: “What is before this jury is this: “Is it legal for an unarmed man to be shot with his hands up?” And he added: “I came to pray. I came to rally. I came to mend broken hearts.” Reverend Rodney Goss, pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church, said before the rally that he was taking stand for justice. “I want justice to be justice,” Goss said. “We are not anti-police. We’re anti-injustice.”
The Reverend Al and his associates may accuse, shout, plea and cry all they wish, but there was no injustice done. Betty Shelby had good reason to believe that her life was in danger. She did not shoot Crutcher out of wanton motive, racially-related or not. Those who invoke the term “civil rights” so as to make it impossible for white cops to defend themselves are doing nobody any favors. A defendant in a criminal case, regardless of race, is entitled to a presumption of innocence. And the bar for a conviction remains “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It’s true that Officer Shelby might have avoided resorting to lethal force. Unlike the shooting deaths of, say, Patrick Dorismond, Sean Bell or Michael Brown (each hyped by Sharpton to extreme lengths), this was not a clear case of self-defense against a violent suspect. Notwithstanding, the verdict was the right one. As for Betty Shelby, she’s back on the job, though not on a patrol assignment.