SAN DIEGO – I recently asked a newly retired cop friend, who spent 25 years on the job, what’s the one thing that policemen want people to know. He said: “That things go wrong sometimes.”
Things went very wrong recently when 40-year-old Terence Crutcher – an unarmed African-American and father of four – was fatally shot by Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby. There were several other officers on the scene, and one of them attempted to subdue Crutcher with a Taser gun.
Crutcher’s death is a tragedy that should never have happened. It appears that Officer Shelby lost her cool and made a terrible mistake.
Yet, it’s hard to see what good, if any, will come from the decision by Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler to charge Shelby with first-degree manslaughter. If convicted, she would spend at least four years in prison – which, for an ex-cop, could be a death sentence.
To be sure, rogue cops belong in prison – i.e., those who plant evidence, use excessive force, take bribes, perjure themselves or use their power to hurt people. I’m just not sure Shelby fits into one of those categories. Apparently, her sin wasn’t corruption or malice, but incompetence.
According to the arrest affidavit, Shelby “acted unreasonably by escalating the situation” and “became emotionally involved to the point that she overreacted.”
No matter what happens, Shelby will not get off easy. Her career in law enforcement is finished. She’ll lose her job, maybe her pension. She’ll have to find a new line of work, leave town, relocate her family. She may even have to spend the rest of her life looking over her shoulder, since there are people out there who might want to exact street justice.
Certainly no one is above the law, and police officers have to be held accountable.
Still, think for a moment about the age in which we’re living. It has never been harder to be a cop. It used to be that killing a police officer was as unthinkable as assassinating the president. Today, some criminals see it as another cost of doing business.
Naturally, police are skittish. And so those who we entrust with the thankless and increasingly impossible job of enforcing the law, and keeping us safe, must be given more latitude than average citizens as they go about protecting and serving.
As the first officer on the scene, Shelby claims that Crutcher initially ignored her commands to show his hands and that he walked away from her and toward his vehicle. It seems that he only raised his arms when the other officers arrived. And when Shelby fired, according to the affidavit, she couldn’t see Crutcher’s left hand.
That’s part of the problem. Some people make encounters with police overly complicated. When a police officer tells you not to move or to show your hands, you do as you’re told. You don’t defy, resist, mouth off or move toward your car as if you’re going to reach for something. That will likely worry the officer. Things will escalate. And you could get hurt.
Why was Crutcher moving back toward his vehicle? And what would have happened if Shelby’s backup had never arrived, and she had to face off against a suspect with both a height and weight advantage? Would she have gone home that night after her shift, or wound up carried by six in a flag-draped coffin?
According to the affidavit, Shelby told investigators that, even after the other officers arrived, she had never been so scared and was “in fear for her life and thought Crutcher was going to kill her.”
My friend, the ex-cop, thinks that the fact that Shelby was charged at all probably means that fellow officers at the scene threw her under the bus. In speaking with investigators, he suggested, they must have said something like: “Well, we weren’t scared. We had the situation under control.”
What if this isn’t just about racism but also about sexism? The retired police officer thinks that the male cops may be trying to expel from the force a female colleague who admitted to being afraid on the job. After all, in most cases, male officers involved in shootings never get charged.
Besides, what did the affidavit say? That Shelby was “emotionally involved” at the scene? “Emotional” is a code word that men use to put down women. This smells fishy.
If you care about fairness and equal treatment and want to be politically correct, where do you come down then?
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.