Every time I see the latest example of police brutality resulting in the death of an unarmed, usually black citizen, I try to be hopeful that this is the one that will cause the sleepers to wake up.
Yet again, I’m disappointed.
Terence Crutcher, 40, unarmed, black, and male, was shot dead September 20, 2016 by Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby. Moments before the shooting, he had his hands up and was walking slowly away from Shelby, who had her weapon drawn and readied. Crutcher was not making any sudden movements, and he was not in immediate access to any weapons.
Moments later, Crutcher was dead from police fire.
Surely, this is an easy one, right? A police officer panicked and made a mistake. We can even be generous and assume a lack of open malice. I don’t think Officer Shelby woke up that morning thinking, “I’m going to go shoot myself a black man, for kicks.”
I think Officer Shelby made a tragic mistake, and that she’s a symptom of a bigger problem of cops with too much power and not enough consequence.
There’s clear footage that Crutcher was not making any sudden movements. The absolute worst case scenario is that Crutcher may have been reaching, slowly, into his SUV. That’s what Shelby says: She thought he was reaching for a gun, so she shot him.
In the moments during which Crutcher walked slowly towards his SUV, she or the other officers on site had time to explore other options. Taser? Surround him and keep him from his vehicle? Shoot him in the leg to disable him? Secure a perimeter behind the police vehicles?
In the end, the decision was to shoot him point blank in the torso.
The standard reason given for why police shoot suspects in the torso is because of accuracy. From a distance, it’s harder to shoot someone in the leg or the arm; the chance of missing is much higher. Torsos are big, arms are small. From a distance, that makes sense.
But Shelby wasn’t at a distance. Neither were the other three officers that had arrived on the scene as she was following him back to his vehicle.
The only way they could have been closer is if they’d pinned to the ground.
You know, like Anton Sterling.
Blatant overkill. Even if people don’t want to accept race as a factor (because white people do sometimes get killed by overzealous police, too), the police have a clear problem with abuse of force. Right?
Maybe Crutcher’s window was open. Maybe he was reaching into his vehicle. Maybe Shelby (who had conveniently failed to turn on her dash cam) had given him instructions that he wasn’t following.
And out comes the chorus: “Why didn’t he just comply?”
I understand about cognitive dissonance. I understand how someone who has spent the two years since Michael Brown’s death or the four and a half years since Trayvon Martin’s death arguing that those people deserved it, would feel increasingly defensive as more cases come out that are more obvious and more blatant.
Trayvon Martin’s death is not a clear-cut case. He was shot by a private citizen who was acting in the capacity of kinda-sorta-cop (he was a neighborhood watch captain), and there’s some evidence that Martin did attack Zimmerman first.
Michael Brown’s death is not a clear-cut case, either. The jury was satisfied that Brown tried to take Officer Darren Wilson’s gun, and that there was a physical altercation. The jury also decided it was plausible that, at the time of the fatal shots, Brown was rushing at Wilson.
But what of Eric Garner, strangled to death in a way reminiscent of Malice Green’s death twenty-four years ago? Green was more of a threat than Garner; Green was on drugs, and was aggressive towards police. And yet, while the Detroit police officers involved in Green’s death both served some time in prison, the police who were involved in Garner’s death have gotten no real consequences so far.
And what of Alton Sterling, pinned to the ground and apparently shot to death for struggling? What of Terence Crutcher, shot to death for possibly reaching into his SUV, where it turns out he didn’t have a gun?
Admittedly, many of the police shootings publicized through the Black Lives Matter movement are not all clear-cut cases.
Tyre King, a 13-year-old shot dead by police in Ohio, may have been pulling a BB gun out of his waistband. Or maybe not.
Depending on who you listen to, Keith Lamont Scott had a gun or a book when he was shot dead in Charlotte.
Philando Castile may have looked like he was reaching for a gun in the moments before he was shot dead in a car with a child in the backseat.
Twelve-year-old Tamir Rice had a toy gun in his hand when the police just drove up and shot him.
And the beat goes on.
The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. The sleepers and apologists get distracted by the idea that some of the black males shot dead in the street by overzealous police officers are acting anything less than 100% compliant. Because Officer Shelby failed to do her job of turning on the dash cam, we won’t know for sure if she’d told Crutcher to stay put and he decided to walk to his car, or if she’d told Crutcher to walk to his vehicle and he actually was complying when she shot him dead.
And that is the key: Officer Shelby apparently failed to do her job of turning on the dash cam.
Regardless of what we think of individual incidents, the sum total message is that we have a serious policing problem in this country. Whether it’s officers pepper-spraying prone protesters, neighborhood watch captains stalking black teens, transit officers being told to target black men, officers exaggerating or completely fabricating charges in retaliation, or an officer beating and insulting a handcuffed woman for allegedly spitting on him, we have a policing problem.
Even setting these point-blank shootings aside, we have a serious policing problem. And the shootings are the worst of the lot.
As I said, I understand why the apologists would be trying so hard to continue to make this about the “suspect”, after denying this so passionately for so long. I do.
But it’s time to drop the defensiveness. We need to fix this, and we need to fix this now.
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To receive information as these groups roll out and start, please send an email to us at
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