Lawsuits alleging cronyism and use of excessive force at the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office were efiled Wednesday, nearly a month after a judge ruled the claims needed to be split from a joint lawsuit filed last year.
The lawsuits were filed on behalf of Terry Byrum and the estate of Eric Harris. Byrum was shocked with a Taser by former TCSO reserve deputy Robert Bates last February during a traffic stop.
Bates, working undercover on TCSO’s Violent Crimes Task Force, killed Harris less than two months later during a botched gun sting. Harris’ death brought a spotlight on the sheriff’s office, both locally and nationally, and an ensuing grand jury investigation resulted in criminal charges and the resignation of longtime Sheriff Stanley Glanz.
Bates was charged last year with second-degree manslaughter in connection to Harris’ death.
The complaints were initially joined to an existing civil rights lawsuit against the sheriff’s office filed on behalf of Scott Birdwell, a man who alleged he was injured and denied care while in the Tulsa jail. A federal judge later ruled that the three cases could not be joined, and dismissed the Byrum and Harris complaints.
They were refiled separately on Wednesday in federal court.
Byrum’s complaint alleges that he was arrested and handcuffed last February, then shocked by Bates, who said he had been instructed by a responding deputy to use his Taser. Byrum, who was not charged with a crime following the arrest, said he was tackled and compliant at the time Bates used the Taser against him.
The Harris incident, which happened amidst furor over fatal shootings by police officers, garnered national headlines last April. The focus of a gun sting, Harris was selling a handgun to an undercover deputy last April in north Tulsa when he realized he was about to be arrested and fled.
Harris, who had already handed the only gun in his possession to the undercover deputy, was quickly tackled by a pursuing officer. Bates, who was assigned to the Violent Crimes Task Force in a backing capacity (according to the sheriff’s office), nonetheless approached Harris and shot him once under the right arm.
Bates, who said in a written statement to investigators four days later he believed he was brandishing a Taser at the time of the shooting, then exclaimed “I shot him, I’m sorry.”
The entire incident was recorded via surveillance equipment Bates had purchased for the sheriff’s office.
That purchase was not Bates’ only gift to the sheriff’s office. The lawsuit mentions several vehicles Bates gave to the sheriff’s office, as well as watches, vacations and even mortgages paid for by the longtime insurance executive.
Bates, it turned out, had previously been the subject of an Internal Affairs investigation into his rise up the reserve deputy ranks. Several staffers reported that despite a lack of verified training hours, they were intimidated into passing Bates, a lifelong friend of Glanz, through the reserve deputy program.
Bates, a grand jury later learned, had even failed handgun qualification tests. This was a basic requirement for all deputies annually, but something Glanz apparently waved off, telling an instructor to “take it easy” and to “just pass (Bates.)”
The lawsuit alleges that the sheriff’s office “utterly failed” to train Bates and Michael Huckeby, a former deputy Glanz later said should have never been on the task force. The suit also alleges that by the time of Harris’ death, TCSO had “an established and unabated” history of excessive force amongst reserve deputies.
The Internal Affairs investigation into Bates should have been a signal to Glanz, the lawsuit states, that the 73-year-old reserve deputy was unfit for duty. However, Bates was awarded perhaps more leeway than any other reserve deputy, many of whom provided security work at the Tulsa State Fair, or at Special Olympics events, according to sheriff’s office literature.
Bates is currently set for trial in April. Glanz is set to return to court Jan. 20.