Last September, Terence Crutcher, an unarmed 40-year-old Black man, was fatally shot by Tulsa, Oklahoma police officer Betty Jo Shelby. On May 18, Shelby was acquitted of first-degree manslaughter, making her the latest U.S. cop to get away with with killing a Black person.
Multiple police cameras showed Crutcher standing in the middle of a street next to his car with his hands raised. He had committed no crime. There was no report of a crime. He needed a helping hand, but instead was gunned down by Shelby whose attorney stated in the following days that, “She’s [Shelby] afraid he could have a gun in his pocket. He’s got very loose clothing on.”
Seconds before Shelby fired on Crutcher, the pilot of a police helicopter circling in the sky had said Crutcher “looks like a bad dude.” The blatantly racist pre-judgements of Shelby and the officer-pilot leave no doubt about the racist character of the incident.
The jury that acquitted Shelby was composed of eight men and four women, of which three were African American. In response to the verdict, about 100 demonstrators congregated outside the courthouse to protest, chanting, “No Justice, No peace, No racist police!”
The police killing of Crutcher galvanized many into the streets in Tulsa to condemn racist police brutality and call for police accountability. It was these street demonstrations that prompted the Tulsa County District Attorney to eventually charge Shelby and place her on administrative leave six days after the killing. According to Shelby’s lawyer Shannon McMurray, prosecutors rushed to press charges on Shelby fearing “violent” civil unrest like that which erupted in Charlotte, North Carolina after the fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, just four days after Crutcher was killed.
After the verdict, Shelby was “elated” and stated that “she’s ready to get back to her life.” (Crimesider)
While the killer cop Betty Shelby celebrated getting away with killing an innocent man, Crutcher’s family was reduced to tears and reacted with outrage to the verdict of the jurors.
Too many killer cops in our streets!
The racist police terror against Terence Crutcher by Tulsa police is not an anomaly. In 2015, Tulsa Reserve Deputy Robert Bates was sentenced to four years in prison for shooting and killing an unarmed Black man after saying he mistook his gun for his Taser.
Also in 2015, Daniel Holtzclaw, an ex-officer of the Oklahoma City Police Department, went on trial for sexually assaulting 13 Black women while on duty. He was convicted of 18 of 36 charges of sexual assault, and was sentenced to over 200 years in prison.
Nationwide, there is an absence of reliable government statistics on civilian deaths caused by on-duty law enforcement. Data compiled independently by media and civilian tracker sources has revealed an estimate of about 1,000 deadly shootings each year. These numbers do not include civilians who die in police custody.Some 37 percent of unarmed people killed by police were Black, even though Black people only make up 13 percent of the U.S. population. Appallingly, since the year 2005, just 54 officers have been charged after fatal on-duty shootings, out of which only 13 have been convicted of murder or manslaughter!
The killer cops’ toolbox
In police brutality cases, it should be noted that the police departments themselves heavily influence the outcome, as they are largely able to control the narrative after the killing. This also holds true in the case
of Shelby and Crutcher. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund statement stated that, “Officer Shelby continually altered her account of the incident, apparently changing the details based on the influence of counsel and discoveries by her fellow officers instead of her own recollection.”
In this way, the outcomes of such cases are in many ways shaped and prejudiced even prior to the cases reaching the courts.
Another commonality among the cases of on-duty killings is the reliance of the killer cops on “reasonable belief,” a standard in U.S. criminal law used by police to say they can kill people if they have a reasonable
belief that they are threatened. This has been turned into a police license to kill any Black person for doing virtually anything.
The same old tales of threat of violence or harm, intent to harm, aggressive moves, disobeying of commands, reaching for a non-existent weapon and self-defense have in many cases even trumped concrete evidence like video footage and audio recordings.
Character assassination by digging up misdemeanors or felonies of the distant past is another tool in the toolbox that is often used against victims to undermine their position as a victim, and instead to paint them as a capable aggressor. Both of these tactics also aided in Shelby’s acquittal.
Oklahoma’s legacy of racism
The racist actions of Oklahoma’s police today cannot be understood irrespective of the legacy of the racist institutions, systems, and events of the past.
Case-in-point is the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, when white residents of the Greenwood neighborhood, also popularly known as Black Wall Street at the time, massacred up to 300 Black residents and razed the neighborhood to the ground leaving over 8,000 of them homeless.
The riot started with the accusation that a Black man had sexually assaulted a white woman, a charge that was dropped after the riot.
A grand jury at the time blamed the Black community for the riot—much as today Shelby blamed Terence Crutcher—and no one was convicted of participating in the riot, nor were any Black residents compensated for their lost or damaged property. Although considered to be one of the most devastating massacres in the history of the United States, the riot remains absent in most history books across the country, and hence absent from the consciousness of most people in the U.S.
The police apparatus and the capitalist state
The pattern seems to be that the only times that killer cops are convicted for their crimes is when there is massive public outrage at the local or national level. It is only when people take to the streets and indict the
racist police apparatus that justice even has the potential of being served.
The role of the police within a white-supremacist capitalist state is to act as a blue line of defense, a buffer between the owning capitalist class and the oppressed working class.
The history of the United States is a history of the ruling class using the state, including the police, to defend its exploitation and oppression. The police defended slavery and then Jim-Crow segregation; they are mass
incarceraters of working people today.
Until this social order is overthrown the racist police apparatus will remain the same in nature.