18 May

Oklahoma officer who killed unarmed black motorist is found not guilty. But who’s surprised?

Betty Shelby is cleared for the shooting death of Terence Crutcher.

Betty Shelby was found not guilty of the shooting death of Terence Crutcher after his car stalled on the road in Tulsa in September, 2016.

Here we go, again. On Wednesday, a jury in Oklahoma found Betty Shelby (a white police officer) not guilty of manslaughter in the shooting death of Terence Crutcher (a black motorist) last year. Is anyone at all surprised? You may remember this case because Crutcher’s car broke down and police were responding to a call of a stalled vehicle when officers, including Shelby, approached him. It’s unclear what kind of information they had about him or his vehicle that would have warranted several officers and a helicopter to be on the scene for what should have been a routine traffic stop but nevertheless the video footage shows officers bum-rushing him while his hands are up.

Police said Crutcher approached the vehicle but failed to listen to commands from officers. Shelby asked Crutcher if the car was his, but only mumbled to himself and didn’t respond, according to an affidavit.

Crutcher was seen walking to his car with his hands up before reaching into the driver’s side window. One of the officers fired his Taser at him. Shelby also fired her gun — striking the father of four in the lung, police said.

There is not clear video footage of when Shelby shot Crutcher so we are not able to see exactly what transpired in those moments. But we do know that even before that, the police were assuming that Crutcher was a “bad dude.” Even the police in the helicopters can be heard saying so.

Shelby’s defense was that she thought he was on drugs. And later a toxicology report proved that he was indeed under the influence of at least two hallucinogenic drugs, which include PCP. One thought here is that perhaps Crutcher, in his altered state, could not communicate with police and that he was actually reaching in the car for his identification. There was no weapon found in the car. Of course, police have no way of knowing this.

But that point seems irrelevant only because of all the things leading up to that moment. White drug abusers are certainly treated with more regard than this. Hell, a white kid who went into a church full of black people in Charleston and shot them not only managed to get taken alive by police afterward, he got taken to Burger King by the police later because he was hungry. So it seems possible here that while Shelby thought Crutcher was on drugs, she also could have figured out a way to take him into custody alive, right? Except that many police also have this problem that seeing black folk out in the world means that they “fear for their lives” which translates into shoot to kill.

During the trial, Shelby testified that police training videos taught her to be careful about suspects pulling guns when they reach into their vehicles, according to The Associated Press.

She fired her weapon, she told a Tulsa County courthouse on Monday, because “I feared for my life.”

“I did everything I could to stop this,” she added. “Crutcher’s death is his fault.”

Terence Crutcher’s car stalled in the street. Let’s start with asking why the police, in response to that call, began with approaching him with tasers and guns out while his hands were up and he appeared unarmed. Why would Betty Shelby and these officers see him in the street, unarmed by his vehicle, and think he was to be feared? And then let’s ask ourselves why this keeps happening. It would be too simple to say that all cops are racist—though let’s face it, plenty of them are. It would also be too simple to say Betty Shelby is a racist, which she may or may not be. But it is also important to note that as a white woman her defense which played on the stereotypical fear of harm from a big brutish black man is a very racist trope which likely bought her much sympathy from the jury.

We can argue all day about who is racist and who is not but it won’t get us anywhere. There is, however, a fundamental problem with policing in America that does stem from racism. Police officers subconscious (or very conscious) so-called fears or hatred of “aggressive” black bodies allow them to act recklessly and take black lives instantaneously and use fear as an excuse and not be held accountable. Terence Crutcher is dead. His killer was not held accountable. And that is most certainly not his fault.

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