Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Absolved Again: Betty Shelby's Acquittal

Tulsa PD officer Betty Shelby acquitted in the
shooting death of Terrence Crutcher
If not for the intense mainstream media focus on the latest of the seemingly endless stream of ethical bombshells coming from the White House last week, the acquittal of Tulsa PD officer Betty Shelby probably would have garnered far more attention than it did.

With racial polarization in America already enflamed by the enraged delusional rhetoric of the Trump campaign, 40-year-old Terrence Crutcher's violent death caught on video on Friday September 16, 2016 horrified the nation.

If you recall it dominated the news cycle heading into that weekend eight months ago, compounded by nervous media rumblings about racial unrest.

That's an interesting term when you think about it, isn't it? "Racial unrest."

As if the default state of racial tensions in a nation founded on an agrarian economy based on enslaved African labor, is somehow at "rest".

The dash-cam and helicopter videos, as well as recordings of police dispatch radio transmissions, that were quickly released by the Tulsa PD three days after the incident on Tuesday September 19th arguably made many restless - regardless of their ethnicity, socio-economic background or religion.

The facts of Terrence Crutcher's shooting were at once disturbing and familiar to people around the globe - an unarmed man of color being shot and killed by an American law enforcement professional for reasons that didn't seem to warrant the use of deadly force.

Tulsa PD officers Betty Shelby and Tyler Turnbough were only doing their duty when they responded to multiple 9-1-1 calls from motorists at 7:36pm reporting an SUV stopped in the middle of a two-lane road with the driver's side door wide open and a driver, Crutcher, who was walking around outside the vehicle acting oddly.

Terrence Crutcher with his hands raised seconds
before being shot by Betty Shelby
One driver stopped to ask if he needed help and claims that Crutcher replied that he thought his SUV was about to explode.

When Shelby arrived she quickly recognized that Crutcher was under the influence of some kind of substance.

He didn't seem coherent, he ignored her commands and casually walked away from her and Turnbough with his hands raised.

He never threatened them or charged them.

He just didn't listen to them.

But as toxicology reports would later show, it's possible he wasn't able to actually understand them as he had both PCP and TCP (a hallucinogen and psycho-stimulant even more powerful then PCP) in his bloodstream at the time of his death - a Tulsa PD homicide investigator claims to have found a vial of PCP inside Crutcher's SUV.

But was Crutcher "wacked out" on PCP to the degree that he represented a physical threat to the officers at the scene as Tulsa PD and Shelby's attorney seemed to suggest?

Or did his skin color and physical size magnify the sense of danger that Betty Shelby said she felt that prompted her to shoot him while he was standing next to his SUV with his hands in the air?

Take a minute to look at the helicopter footage taken just moments before Crutcher was shot, he's walking slowly away from the officers with his hands in the air - if you're queasy about that kind of thing you can't actually see him being shot though when the helicopter comes around you can see him laying on the ground with blood on his shirt.

Betty Shelby (right) with her gun on Crutcher
as he walks away from her toward his SUV 
As you can see from the dash cam video image at left taken from Tyler Turnbough's police cruiser just after he pulled up to the scene to assist Betty Shelby, she had her gun drawn on Crutcher and he was walking away from her with his hands up.

He wasn't running, he was walking.

Officer Turnbough quickly pulls up to offer assistance and as the two approach Crutcher near the back his SUV, Turnbough tasered him and Shelby shot him in the chest.

The bullet she fired broke four of his ribs and pierced two of his lungs.

He died in the hospital several hours later.

As the autopsy report states, "The cause of death is penetrating gunshot wound of chest with musculoskeletal and visceral injuries. The manner of death is classified as homicide."

Two days after the video was released showing Crutcher with his hands in the air, even Donald Trump (while polling at historical lows with African-Americans) weighed in on the Crutcher shooting saying he was "very troubled" by the shooting and speculated that Betty Shelby had "choked" because she was scared.

From the time that she was charged with first-degree manslaughter, Shelby's attorney did everything possible to characterize Terrence Crutcher as some kind of dangerous raving lunatic on PCP with a prison record for selling crack - they even talked about Crutcher being obese, (as if the fatal gunshot wound to his chest wouldn't have killed him if he'd been thin.)

But the problem is Officer Shelby didn't know any of that when she drew her handgun and later fired the shot that killed Crutcher, she only knew that he was an African-American who was acting strangely after parking his SUV in the middle of a road.

If she was so scared, why didn't she just wait for backup?

If you watch the video, there are two other officers responding to assist her and Turnbough as she fires that shot - and Crutcher isn't in an elementary school parking lot or in a mall, he's wandering around his SUV parked in the middle of a rural stretch of road surrounded by woods.

Terrence Crutcher with his son
Had Crutcher turned suddenly towards Shelby, or rushed the officers her shooting him in the chest would at least make some kind of sense.

But he had his hands in the air and he was walking, not running, away from her.

From my point of view, her decision to shoot him was a totally unjustified use of deadly force in a situation where it wasn't warranted.

Therefore she should have faced at least some kind of legal responsibility for taking his life.

But the court ruled there will be no legal repercussions for her pulling the trigger.

She will soon return to duty.

The outcome of this trial represents yet another example in a disturbingly long line of American law enforcement professionals who've shot and killed unarmed African-American boys or men, only to be absolved of legal responsibility for their actions in a court of law based on a specious legal argument that the officer's fears of a situation or threat that did not actually exist - was justification for taking someone's life.

At the core lies an unresolved examination of the complexity of how racial bias influences the thinking and decision making of members of law enforcement under stress.

This case, and many like it, seem to elevate the presence of that stress or fear above the life of innocent citizens - many, like Terrence Crutcher, who were unarmed when they were killed.

Officer Betty Shelby
Step back for a moment and consider this case in the context of the Tulsa Race Riot.

In which an enraged mob of white citizens aided by local police intentionally set fire to the prosperous African-American section of Tulsa known as Greenwood and systematically beat, stab, lynched and shot at least 300 innocent black Americans over the course of May 31 - June 1, 1921.

Seen through that historical lens the acquittal of Betty Shelby is particularly troubling on a number of levels.

It suggests the deep-seated racial prejudices that sparked one of the worst incidents of racial violence in American history almost 96 years ago, still resonate in the minds of some - in Oklahoma and beyond.

Even some who are sworn to protect in serve.

Was Officer Betty Shelby conscious of her own internal racial bias back on September 16, 2016?

We may never know that answer, she herself may not even know or understand that.

But we do know that last week, a court of law in Oklahoma absolved her of any legal responsibility for taking a human life.

Based in large part on the internal fears that she herself testified prompted her to fire the fatal shot that took the life of Terrence Crutcher.

A son, brother, cousin and father - another name on the long list of The Counted.

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