Now, that’s a pretty presumptuous title, isn’t it? How can I presume to talk about what was in the mind of Officer Betty Shelby when she shot Terence Crutcher in Tulsa a week ago?
The answer is: of course I don’t know. Of course I am speculating here, and everything I say in this post should be read with that caveat in mind. But my speculation isn’t idle, either; it’s based on statements made by Shelby’s own lawyer and by the police as to her state of mind, as well as the fact situation as reported. For the purposes of this post I am ignoring the statements of the Crutcher family and/or their lawyers, and focusing instead on what information is available from Shelby’s own side and from the police.
Why am I writing this? After all, isn’t it premature, because we don’t know enough? Absolutely. But this particular case grabbed my attention from the start, because it is one of the seemingly more extreme examples of a shooting that appears unjustified. To me, what may have happened in this case has little to do with the other cases that people lump in with it—Ferguson and Charlotte and Zimmerman and the ones I listed in my Legal Insurrection piece and all the other Black Lives Matter causes célèbres—although of course they are used in the same way to score political points. But they all have different fact situations that point to different conclusions about exactly what was going on in each.
My interest in the Crutcher case was especially piqued at the outset:
[Shelby] asked Crutcher whether the car belonged to him but got no response, the attorney said. Crutcher began walking toward her with his hands in his pockets. She politely asked Crutcher to take his hands out of his pocket while they were speaking, Wood said.
“He does comply and puts his hands out of his pocket, and then puts his hands up in the air, which she thought was a little bit strange under the circumstances,” he said.
Really? Did it ever occur to her that with all the recent violence he might have been wanting to show her he was completely harmless and cooperative?
In retrospect, that reaction of hers seems even more significant to me. It occurred right at the start of their interaction, when Shelby was trying to piece together what was happening in the strange scene she came upon: a car in the middle of the road, empty but running (some reports say the doors were open, some not; some say she encountered Crutcher before the car, some say it was the other way around). When Shelby talked to Crutcher he was unresponsive, and she had to decide what that behavior of his meant. There were a large number of possibilities, some benign (deaf, distracted, having a health problem) and some not (purposely uncooperative, hiding something).
All along the way, Shelby was trying to make sense of things. All along the way she had choices, and for whatever reason (we don’t know why) she kept choosing the most negative one.
Now, don’t get me wrong.
I’m well aware that police officers have a very difficult task in this regard. Not only do they often come on a scene that’s hard to interpret and yet they must make sense of it, but they always—and I mean always—must keep in mind the worst possibility, which usually would mean the possibility of violence and perhaps even serious or fatal violence at the hands of the citizen or citizens they encounter.
But that goes with the territory of police work, and to do that work you must have the temperament to handle it. If that ever-present possibility of sudden violence spooks you too much—and it would certainly spook me—then find another line of work and don’t be a cop. Please don’t be a cop. Because whether you’re interacting with a black person or a white person or a man or a woman, you don’t know what you’re dealing with and you have to act reasonably in response.
Do you think that word “reasonably” is unfair? Do you think it’s one of those tricky legal words that are designed to trap you? Well, it’s an imperfect standard, like all the rest, but it’s the best one I can think of and it’s—well, it’s reasonable. Reasonableness is based on the totality of the situation, and in the case of Crutcher we have quite a bit of information about his own behavior, both at the outset of the encounter and throughout it, and that behavior contains (by Shelby’s own report) not a hint of a threat, aggression, violence, or physical resistance.
On the other hand, Crutcher was consistently spacey and cloudy. Sometimes he was nonresponsive or answered in mumbles. However, he was often responsive to commands, too, although not always. The picture is of someone either having a health crisis, nervous, mentally challenged, or under the influence of a drug that had a downer rather than upper effect (whether or not the toxological tests show PCP or another drug is irrelevant, because all Shelby had to go on at the time was his behavior, and I am relying here on her own reports of his actual behavior).
What did Shelby think Crutcher’s hands in the air meant? Consciousness of guilt? I really don’t know, and she hasn’t said (that is, her lawyer hasn’t said; she herself has made no statements and would not have been expected to have made any).
Here’s more of Shelby’s account of what happened in their first encounter and up to the time she called for backup. We have no video and no way of knowing it this is true, but it’s the only information we have and we can assume it’s also the narrative most favorable to her, because she’s the one telling it, according to her lawyer. I will alternate excerpts with my comments on each excerpt:
[Shelby’s attorney] Wood said that Shelby then said to Crutcher, “Hey, is this your car?”
Crutcher didn’t respond, simply dropping his head while continuing to look at Shelby, “kind of under his brow,” Wood said. Crutcher then began to put his hand into his left pocket, Wood said, adding that Shelby told Crutcher, “Hey, please keep your hands out of your pocket while you’re talking to me. Let’s deal with his car.”
Crutcher did not respond, Wood said, so Shelby ordered him again to get his hand out of his pocket. He then pulled his hand away and put his hands up in the air, even though he was not instructed to do so, which Shelby found strange, Wood said.
I’ve already described that last part, but let me add that Shelby doesn’t report telling Crutcher not to ever put his hands in his pockets, or tell him why he should not do so and the extreme importance of not doing so. According to her own report, she specifically tells him that he should not put his hands in his pockets while talking to her.
Shelby tried to get Crutcher to talk to her, but he simply mumbled something unintelligible and stared at her, Wood said. He then turned and walked to the edge of the roadway and turned to look at her, his hands still in the air, Wood said. He put his hands down and started to reach into his pocket again, Wood said, and she ordered him again to get his hands out of his pocket.
Remember that at this point, Crutcher had put his hands in the air voluntarily. He and Shelby had also stopped talking. So putting his hands down again, and “starting to reach into his pocket” (we don’t know exactly how close he got to his pocket, or whether she just felt he was moving his hand or hands in that direction), was actually not disobeying her commands, at least not according to her own version of what commands she had given.
At this point, Shelby, a drug recognition expert, believed Crutcher was “on something,” Wood said, possibly PCP.
Shelby then radioed in that she had a subject “who is not following commands.”
“You can kind of hear a degree of stress in her voice when she says that,” Wood said.
Thinking he was “on something” was a good bet of Shelby’s; there was certainly evidence for it. That “something” could have been almost anything, considering the symptoms he was exhibiting. Or it could have been due to some other mental or physical problem or disability. He was not following commands well, to be sure, but on the scale of people a police officer encounters on a regular basis he was by no means on the very difficult and certainly not the belligerent end of the spectrum. And yet, even according to her lawyer, Shelby was not remaining cool; she was stressed enough that it could be readily heard in her voice.
Shelby then pulled out her gun and had Crutcher at gunpoint as she commanded him to get on his knees, Wood said. She pulled out a gun instead of a Taser because she thought he had a weapon, and she was planning to arrest him for being intoxicated in public and possibly obstructing the investigation, Wood said.
I have no idea whether a gun pointed at the detainee would have been standard police protocol at that juncture (previously, there had also been some question as to whether or not she was equipped with a taser; it turns out she was, but chose the gun instead). I was listening to a cable news show a day or two ago and heard an interview with an NYPD police officer (unfortunately I have no idea who it was) who maintained there was no urgency about this arrest. He said that Shelby already had Crutcher’s license plate number, and police could almost certainly have located him later if they wished to charge him. There was no evidence of a weapon except for this very intermittent hand in or near pocket, which could have benign explanations. The NYPD officer suggested she should have gone to her car, radioed for help, and waited for the backup under those circumstances and that there was no urgency whatsoever and no need to take the risks she was taking.
Shelby ordered Crutcher to stop multiple times as Crutcher walked toward the SUV with his hands up, Wood said.
But those orders cannot be heard in the audio from the dashcam video, which starts as another patrol car pulls up to the scene, showing Crutcher walking toward the SUV with his hands up as Shelby follows him, apparently with her weapon drawn and pointing at Crutcher.
Shelby follows him with a gun pointed at his back. His hands are up the whole time, and she reports ordering him to stop but we cannot hear these orders. Could he hear them? Would the dashcam have ordinarily have picked up the audio if the orders were given? Again, I don’t know the answer to these questions. By then the other officers have arrived on the scene; were they speaking to her, and if so could she hear them? We don’t know, but they would be able to testify about that, and I assume they will.
“As a police officer, you have to wonder — why would someone ignore commands at gunpoint to get to a certain location?” Wood said.
But we also have to wonder whether Crutcher heard the commands, or whether she could have expected him to have heard them. You also have to wonder whether he knew he was at gunpoint—after all, his back was to her the whole time. But even more importantly, if (like Shelby) you already think you know he has a gun in his pocket, you have to wonder why would he then be going to the car to get a gun?
In addition, Shelby had actually examined the driver’s side of the car earlier, according to reports, and had looked inside. There could not have been a gun in plain sight there or she would have noticed it. If he had a gun in his pocket (we know of course that he did not, but Shelby didn’t know it) why go to the car for another? Did she think he thought he needed two guns?
In other words, Shelby interpreted Clutcher’s reaching for his pocket a couple of times to mean he had a gun in it. She acted on that by pulling her own gun. By then she was agitated and frightened. And yet Clutcher had done nothing aggressive, either verbally or physically (although this didn’t mean he didn’t have a gun, of course). Although Shelby was nearly sure he had a gun on his person, when he then started walking towards the car she suddenly switched to thinking he was going to the car to get a gun. She had based her idea that he already had a gun on his behavior of reaching towards his pocket, but somewhere along the line she transferred the thought “he has a gun in his pocket because he sometimes reaches for his pocket” into “he’s got a gun somewhere, because this is a guy with a gun.”
In my Legal Insurrection post I wrote, as a partial explanation:
..[P]olice are trained to be very aware of the dangers that can be involved in allowing a person to return to his/her vehicle, and this knowledge was likely to have influenced Officer Shelby when Crutcher began what turned out to be his final walk.
As Bob Owens at Bearing Arms notes, a well-known police training video on this subject involves the shooting of police officer Kyle Dinkheller, who was killed in 1998 by a man he had stopped for a speeding violation named Andrew Brannan. After demonstrating extreme verbal aggressiveness, and after being hit (but not subdued) by Officer Dinkheller with his baton, Brannan went back to his vehicle, got a rifle, and killed the officer.
I am assuming that Shelby may have seen that video during her own police training. If so, it may have made a deep impression on her and perhaps given her the idea that, in and of itself, going back to a car was something to prevent at all costs. In the video, the pre-shooting behavior of the killer is very different from Crutcher’s, almost from the very start. He is extremely aggressive over an extended period of time before the killing. But (and this is a guess) something about the video may have contributed to Shelby’s extreme fear.
Do you think I’m overdoing it when I refer to her “extreme fear”? I’m not making it up, because here’s more of her story:
Crutcher’s arms came down [sic—apparently it was just his right arm that came to rest at his side], and he turned to face the car, Wood said, and he reached into the driver’s side window with his left hand [there is some evidence, however, that the car window may have been closed]. That’s when Shelby fired one shot and a fellow officer, Tyler Turnbough, deployed a Taser, Wood said.
Shelby believed that when Crutcher attempted to reach into the car, he was retrieving a weapon, Wood said. In her interview with homicide detectives, she said, “I was never so scared in my life as in that moment right then,” according to Wood.
Again, recall that her conclusion that Crutcher was dangerous was based on the idea that he had a gun in his pocket, which in turn was based on the fact that he had sometimes put his hand or hands in his pocket or towards his pocket. But now she is sure he is going for a gun in his car instead—a car she had previously looked into or “cleared,” although she had not searched it thoroughly. And she reports that she “was never so scared in her life” as at that moment.
Shelby has now been charged with first degree manslaughter:
“Officer Shelby reacted unreasonably by escalating the situation from a confrontation with Mr. Crutcher, who was not responding to verbal commands and was walking away from her with his hands held up, becoming emotionally involved to the point that she overreacted,” said the affidavit released with the charges by the District Attorney’s office. “Although Mr. Crutcher was wearing baggy clothes, Officer Shelby was not able to see any weapons or bulges indicating and (sic) weapon was present.”
The affadavit makes for interesting reading in another respect. It mentions that Shelby was told by Officer Turnbough (the officer who fired the taser) that he had his taser ready. Did she hear him? Did they speak at all? Was she aware of her surroundings anymore, or was she in such a state of extreme emotional agitation that she wasn’t noticing anything but Crutcher’s hands, convinced those hands would be the instruments of her death?
If my reconstruction of Shelby’s state of mind is correct, I have further questions. Was there any earlier indication she was the type of person who would have had a panic reaction? If so, was anything done about it? I have read statistics that indicate that women police officers are less likely to be involved in shootings than male officers, so it’s not a simple matter of female vs. male. Was race part of her reaction? It’s certainly possible, but I’m not at all sure it would have had that much effect because a Tulsa police officer would have been quite used to encountering black people on a regular basis and she wasn’t shooting at them willy-nilly. My guess is that something about Crutcher’s inconsistent demeanor mystified and then frightened her, and his size (he was a very big man) factored heavily into her fear, as well.
From what we know so far, it seems as though the DA made the right decision in charging Sehlby. As further facts emerge—and I have little doubt that they will—we should learn much more.