September 16 marks a year since the brutal death of Terence Crutcher, another black man who lost his life at the hands of a police officer. It took less than that year for the justice system in Oklahoma to absolve Betty Shelby of any responsibility and reinstate her to the police force, solidifying the sentiment that his life did not matter to the State of Oklahoma.
Terence Crutcher had just celebrated his 40th birthday when his car broke down on the side of the road. Officer Shelby, who was responding to another call, pulled over, presumably to aid the immobilized motorist. But Crutcher would never receive that aid, because he instead would be tased by one officer and then fatally shot by Shelby.
The entire encounter was recorded on the police car’s dash cam, capturing the injustice as the life drained from Terence Crutcher’s body. The Tulsa police chief called the video “disturbing” and “difficult to watch,” yet Shelby and the other officers involved were placed on paid administrative leave — essentially, vacation.
Footage from a helicopter circling above the scene recorded an officer’s statement summing up the entire event in one sentence: “That looks like a bad dude, too.” This officer had never met Crutcher; how could he possibly know the content of his character? What could possibly have led him to conclude that Crutcher, a father of four who was heavily involved in his church and had recently enrolled at the local community college, was “a bad dude”?
It would seem fairly difficult to distinguish almost anything about a person from a couple hundred feet up, much less the integrity of his character. But one key feature — the color of Crutcher’s skin — IS apparent from that distance. Apparently, that’s all the officer needed to deem him dangerous and malicious.
Terence Crutcher was just a black man living in a country that didn’t value him. A country where black men are perceived as stronger, larger and more threatening than a white man of the same size, based on just a picture. Officer Shelby claims she felt threatened and that Crutcher’s death was his own fault. It’s his fault for being born a black man in America, where the color of his skin automatically leads to a character judgment.
There was video proof that presents a contrasting tale to that of Shelby’s, but that wasn’t enough. Dash cam footage contradicts every point of her argument, but it doesn’t matter. The fact that she said she felt threatened by an unarmed black man trumps any physical evidence.
There are gaping holes in Shelby’s legal defense, holes her side tries to fill by banking on the rampant stereotypes of black men that are ingrained in our society. Shelby claims Crutcher would not comply with her commands, though dash cam footage shows him with his hands raised moments before he’s shot. Shelby says she was worried that Crutcher was reaching into his car for a gun (because in her eyes every black man is armed), even though Crutcher’s window was up — even though the evidence found that there was no gun anywhere in his car.
There was no need for Shelby to discharge her weapon, and certainly no need for her to shoot Crutcher dead center in the chest. Shelby insisted she did everything within her training when handling the situation, though her colleague’s use of a non-lethal taser demonstrated that Shelby immediately and unnecessarily jumped to the extreme. Shelby had the advantage in every way in this encounter; she had backup, she had a weapon and most importantly, she was white.
Though Shelby was charged with first-degree manslaughter, the trial played out just like history assured us it would. The jury acquitted her, Shelby walked free and she was reinstated to her job days later. Her police union, of course, then filed an ethics complaint against the district attorney who prosecuted her.
Here lies yet another issue within this tragic story. Unions are supposed to protect the rights of workers, not those of cold-blooded killers. In this country, police unions routinely jump to the defense of cops who kill, no questions asked. A stacked judicial system and internal police systems do the rest, ensuring a disturbing lack of justice for the dead. When will police unions start telling the truth and offer real reforms? They should start fighting police misconduct and end the code of silence. Their long-standing approach undermines their relationship with the communities they serve, and things will never improve until the unions call out bad behavior when they see it.
Wouldn’t that be a more appropriate legacy for what happened to Terrence Crutcher one year ago? Until then, we will be shackled to a system that supports officers who simply see the color of a person’s skin and react, perpetuating the strain on the relationship between law enforcement and the black community.