Anger grows in Tulsa as police release video of fatal shooting of unarmed black man
A fatal police shooting of an unarmed black man by a white officer has reopened fresh wounds in this city with a fraught history among African Americans, white residents and police officers.
A graphic police video shows Terence Crutcher, 40, being fatally shot by a police officer Friday night as he walks with his hands up toward his SUV, stalled out in the middle of the road.
The incident quickly became the latest flashpoint in a string of controversial police shootings of black Americans. Protesters chanted Tuesday evening in downtown Tulsa, the ACLU asked that criminal charges be filed against the officer, and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton said news of the shooting was “unbearable.”
“We have got to tackle systemic racism,” Clinton said on “The Steve Harvey Morning Show.” “This horrible shooting again. How many times do we have to see this in our country?”
An attorney for Officer Betty Shelby, who shot Crutcher after responding to a dispatch call about an abandoned car, said Crutcher failed to heed police commands and that she and another officer, Tyler Turnbough, felt threatened and fired simultaneously. Turnbough used a stun gun.
The city’s police chief, who released both helicopter and dash-cam video of the shooting, called the images “disturbing” and vowed to “achieve justice.”
Protesters quickly demanded that Shelby be fired, and the Crutcher family called for criminal charges against the officer, who has been put on routine administrative leave. The Department of Justice has opened a civil rights investigation and local authorities are independently investigating the shooting.
The last moments of life for Crutcher, a father of four who was on his way home from a class at Tulsa Community College, began with a pair of 911 calls reporting an abandoned car with its engine running and doors open in the middle of the road.
“I got out and was like, ‘Do you need help?’ reported one caller, who said Crutcher “took off running” after asking her to “come here, come here,” and saying the car was going to “blow up.”
“I think he’s smoking something,” the same caller said.
WARNING: This video contains graphic content. Tulsa police released several police car and helicopter videos after Terence Crutcher, an unarmed 40-year-old black man, was fatally shot by a white police officer.
Police videos show Crutcher walking toward his SUV with his hands up. Four officers, three male and one female, approach Crutcher he walks to the driver’s side and seems to lower his hands and put them on the car. The dash-cam video is blocked by officers, and Crutcher is partially blocked by his own car in the the helicopter video, making it difficult to see his movements. A man in the helicopter video suggests it’s “time for a Taser” before saying, “That looks like a bad dude, too. Probably on something.”
Within seconds, Crutcher drops to the ground. “Shots fired!” a woman yells on police radio as officers slowly back away while holding their guns up. Officers wait more than two minutes before approaching Crutcher again.
He was later pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Police say the videos did not capture Shelby arriving on the scene because she did not turn her dash cam on.
Shelby’s attorney, Scott Wood, says that when she showed up and asked Crutcher whether the car was his, he did not respond. Crutcher put his hands in his pockets as he walked toward her, then removed them and put his hands up before walking toward the back of her patrol car and putting his hands back in his pockets, Wood said.
He said she planned to arrest Crutcher, who she thought was intoxicated, and called dispatch. Crutcher did not comply when Shelby took out her gun and told him to get on his knees, but instead walked toward his car, the attorney said.
Wood said Shelby fired her gun at the same time that Turnbough fired a Taser at Crutcher because she had “tunnel vision” and did not realize other officers had arrived on scene.
“When unarmed people of color break down on the side of the road, we’re not treated as citizens needing help. We’re treated as, I guess, criminals — suspects that they fear,” said Benjamin Crump, one of the attorneys representing the Crutcher family.
David Riggs, another family attorney, said there was nothing in the video to suggest Crutcher was dangerous. Riggs said he was seeking an immediate meeting with the district attorney.
The Crutcher family doesn’t “want this ignored or swept under the rug or allowed to just go without being addressed,” Riggs said.
Police and the Crutcher family, which through attorneys has cautiously praised police for quickly releasing videos and audio of the shooting, have differed on key parts of Crutcher’s last moments: whether he disobeyed police or not, and whether he was reaching into his car.
In initial reports, police said Crutcher was not following officers’ commands. But speaking to media Monday, Tulsa police spokeswoman Jeanne MacKenzie said she wasn’t sure what Crutcher did that made police shoot.
Asked why Crutcher wasn’t given immediate medical aid, MacKenzie said she was unsure. “I don’t know that we have protocol on how to render aid to people,” she said.
Police said they found PCP in Crutcher’s car but family attorneys, while not confirming that discovery, dismissed the possibility as playing a role in his death. A toxicology report is pending. Attorneys also contend that Crutcher’s driver’s side window was up and left smeared with blood after he was shot, suggesting that police had no reason to fear him reaching into the car for a weapon.
At a news conference, attorneys displayed enlarged and enhanced photos from the videos where the SUV’s driver’s side window appeared to be up. Police statements and a statement from Shelby’s attorney say she shot because she feared Crutcher was reaching into his car for a weapon.
Crutcher’s twin sister, Tiffany, choked up as she spoke to the media over the weekend and echoed the chants of the Black Lives Matter movement, saying her brother’s “life mattered.”
“Just know that our voices will be heard. Let’s protest. Let’s do what we have to do, but let’s just make sure that we do it peacefully,” said Tiffany Crutcher, who celebrated a birthday with her brother a month ago.
At a protest Tuesday evening, dozens of people turned out holding signs and calling for Shelby’s firing.
“Fire!” one person yelled as protesters responded with “Betty.” Protesters held signs saying “silence is consent” and “white silence is violence,” while holding their hands up in the air.
Amanda Ruyle, 37, was at the protest with her 12-year-old son, Miles Fletcher-Ruyle.
“A lot of my white relatives stay quiet and staying quiet makes you compliant,” said Ruyle. “Tulsa is a pretty segregated city. Poor people and people of color don’t have a lot of power.”
Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Oklahoma, called for criminal charges and said the shooting underscored “how little regard” police have for minorities in Tulsa.
Police tactics in Tulsa, the second-largest city in Oklahoma, have come under increased scrutiny. The shooting comes four months after Tulsa County volunteer deputy Robert Bates was sentenced to four years in prison on a manslaughter charge after shooting and killing Eric Harris, an unarmed black man, during an undercover operation in 2015. The white reserve deputy said he mistakenly reached for his gun instead of his Taser.
That kind of conviction is rare. According to a Tulsa World database, there have been 162 fatal police shootings — including 24 involving Tulsa police — since 2007. Only two, including the shooting by Bates, led to criminal convictions. Of deadly police shootings in Tulsa, 29% of victims were black. The city’s black population stands at 11%.
The scars of a 1921 race riot in which white individuals attacked the black community, destroying businesses and leaving many homeless, are also still felt in Tulsa, where schools still teach history lessons on the incident. The death toll was estimated to be between 50 and 300, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society.
Dewey Morrow, who owns D&F Mini Mart in Greenwood, the site of the historic riot, says he doesn’t understand how the incident Friday escalated from a car breaking down to a man being shot to death.
“What turned? How did it turn and why was deadly force used?” the 58-year-old African American said. “He had his hands up.”
“There was nothing in that situation that wouldn’t suggest to you or I that the police officer wouldn’t help you.”
Kaleem reported from Los Angeles. Special correspondent Eaton reported from Tulsa.
5:55 p.m.: Updated with comments from Officer Betty Shelby’s attorney and protest details.
This article was originally published at 4:15 p.m.
Must-read stories from the L.A. Times
Get the day's top news with our Today's Headlines newsletter, sent every weekday morning.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.