The headlines are becoming so frequent that it is becoming impossible to track them all: a police officer kills an unarmed Black man, woman or child, but will not face any significant punishment, nor retribution. The name of the deceased becomes a hashtag and the focus of our attention until it happens again. And again. And again.
One thing remains both clear, and elusive: America’s police departments need to be overhauled to halt the seemingly unchecked power of officers to shoot and kill Blacks out of fear and bias. The focus must shift to dismantling the mindset behind the shootings that rarely result in charges or indictments against mostly White officers.
I am part of the legal team representing the family of Terence Crutcher, a father of four, who was on his way home from a college course last Friday evening in Tulsa, Oklahoma, when his vehicle stalled. Local police responded to a call about a vehicle blocking traffic, prompting Crutcher to raise his hands high for all to see—ostensibly to demonstrate that he was not a threat—when Officer Betty Shelby shot him dead in cold blood.
Officer Shelby on Thursday was charged with first-degree manslaughter in Crutcher’s death. But as is the case with so many others like her, I believe she should be in jail on murder charges.
Shelby and the other officers, who arrived on the scene last week, had no indication that Crutcher was a criminal or ‘bad guy’ other than their perceptions of large Black men. Police officers cannot continue to carry around these biases; it is too dangerous for Black citizens being patrolled by officers who hold such beliefs.
Officer Shelby and her colleagues have claimed that Crutcher was not complying with orders, but video from the scene tells a different story. It shows a guy walking toward his car with his arms in the air, with a gun trained on his back. Police officers could see his hands. He was not charging toward officers, he was not struggling with officers, he was unarmed, and he posed absolutely no threat to any officer present. Yet, Officer Tyler Turnbough tased Crutcher seconds before Officer Shelby fired her weapon, killing him.
Though investigators will have to search high and low to find a justification for even deploying a Taser, it’s hard to be optimistic about how this story will end. Furthermore, even a conviction would not bring Crutcher back to his family.
His death is even harder to bear considering that one day before his shooting, police apprehended Ahmad Khan Rahami, suspected in connection with bombings in New York and New Jersey that injured 29 people and were designed to kill scores more. Unlike Crutcher, who did not have a weapon or harm anyone, Rahami was taken into custody with minor injuries after exchanging gunfire with police.
We’ve seen many mass shooters apprehended and taken into custody by police officers. Remember the 2015 apprehension of Charleston church shooter Dylann Roof? What about Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people at Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas two years ago? Hasan was shot and paralyzed, but lived to face prosecution. Yet, unarmed Black people continue to be gunned down, many of them innocent of no crime whatsoever.
There have to be real solutions, real discussions, and real changes made in the way that America polices its Black citizens. In Tulsa, the police chief needs to mandate that his entire department undergo diversity and implicit bias training. It is unacceptable that we hear an officer in a helicopter remark “this is a bad guy” in reference to someone who is not a suspect in any crime and for that person to be killed by another seemingly inept, biased officer just moments later. But that is what Crutcher was subjected to in the final moments of his life: profiled, thought to be on some sort of drug, tased, and shot to death.
Officer Shelby should be vigorously prosecuted for Crutcher’s murder. If the Tulsa County District Attorney cannot effectively prosecute her due to the innate relationship between prosecutors and police officers within a jurisdiction, then he needs to request that a special prosecutor be appointed.
There is no justification for what happened to him, and this horrific killing has robbed a family of their father. The city of Tulsa needs to adequately compensate my clients for the unjustified loss of his life, without a prolonged legal process. But we know that settlements and civil suits can bring only but so much relief.
It is time for an end to this violence, and we must put the pressure on both local and national government to step up and make that happen.
We demand change and we demand justice.
Benjamin L. Crump is the attorney for the families of Terence Crutcher, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Corey Jones and a Past President of the National Bar Association.
Lonita K. Baker, a Kentucky lawyer, assisted with the research and writing of this article.
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty