One bullet dropped Terence Crutcher to the pavement on a lonely north Tulsa road Friday night, blood quickly soaking his white T-shirt and staining the gravel as four officers stood about 15 feet away.
Until Monday, when two videos of Crutcher’s shooting death at the hands of Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby were released to the public, little was known about what led to the 40-year-old music student’s death.
And still, even after the gruesome footage has been viewed countless times, questions remain.
Questions like: Why did Shelby fire only one shot at Crutcher, when officers who intend to shoot a suspect are taught to fire multiple bullets? Or why did Shelby fire her gun in the first place, since another officer, Tyler Turnbough, fired his Taser instead, apparently feeling less-lethal force was needed? Why did officers ask Crutcher to put his hands in the air, since there was no criminal activity reported when they arrived? Why did officers go through Crutcher’s pockets, appearing to look for evidence, before rendering aid to a man who they had just shot?
Why did Crutcher reach into his stalled SUV, despite apparent commands from officers not to go near the vehicle? The only audio recorded of the incident was of two Tulsa police officers in a nearby helicopter who watched the incident unfold, and the plaintive cry of Shelby when she announced “shots fired” over her microphone.
It may be quite a while before there are answers to many of those questions. Despite a press conference Monday afternoon where Police Chief Chuck Jordan, District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, United States Attorney for the Northern District of Oklahoma Danny Williams, Mayor Dewey Bartlett and City Councilor Jack Henderson spoke, no questions from the media were taken.
The message given by all the speakers was one that urged calm, caution, and patience.
“I will make this promise to you, we will achieve justice in this case,” Jordan said. “I want to assure our community and I want to assure all of you, and people across the nation who are going to be looking at this, we will achieve justice.” There are two investigations into the shooting, Jordan said following the press conference. One by TPD’s homicide unit, and another by the United States Department of Justice, working in tandem with Williams.
The investigation, Williams said, “will include a comprehensive review of the events surrounding the Sept. 16 shooting that resulted in Mr. Crutcher’s death.”
Having federal involvement so soon after a questionable police shooting is unusual and points to how concerned authorities are that their review be viewed as thorough and fair.
Of the four videos released Monday by Tulsa Police, the recording shot by the department’s helicopter captured the most dramatic angle.
In that video, the helicopter circles the encounter early on as Crutcher, with his hands in the air, and Shelby, with her gun drawn, slowly walk toward Crutcher’s stalled SUV. Crutcher was on his way home from class at Tulsa Community College, his family has said, when his vehicle stopped functioning.
Jordan said at Monday’s press conference that witnesses who saw Crutcher before the shooting called 911 to tell them that Crutcher had said he feared “it was going to blow” or “catch on fire.”
The helicopter video shows that Crutcher, now trailed by Shelby and Turnbough, eventually reached his SUV and appeared to be near the vehicle’s window. One of two officers in the helicopter stated “time for a Taser, I think,” to which the other officer replied: “I got a feeling that’s about to happen.”
“That looks like a bad dude, too,” one officer said. “Could be on something.”
Crutcher then fell to the pavement, as clearly visible blood poured from one bullet wound. An officer in the helicopter stated “I think he might have just been Tasered,” before Shelby’s voice came over the radio and said “shot’s fired.”
“Ooh,” an officer in the helicopter replied.
Crutcher was shot at the 1:51 mark in the video recorded by Turnbough’s dashboard camera. Officers, guns drawn and shoulder to shoulder, slowly back away from his body. Another police car circles Crutcher’s body and nearly two minutes go by before officers approach the wounded man. Rather than rendering aid, officers appear to start looking through Crutcher’s pockets.
The helicopter pilot says, “We need EMSA here,” and begins to order the nearby roads closed.
Shelby’s dash cam was not functioning during the shooting. Tulsa police vehicles work on a three toggle system — when the switch is flipped to “level one,” as Shelby’s car was that night, only the lights in the rear window are active and the siren and camera remain off.
At level two, the overhead lights and camera activate. At three, all lights are on, as are the camera and the siren.
“She had it on one, because it appeared she just thought she came up on a stalled car,” Public Information Officer Shane Tuell said. “You can hear it in her voice, she says, ‘I just came up on an abandoned car.’ ”
Tuell said that neither Shelby nor Turnbough, who did fire a Taser at Crutcher, had any disciplinary history at the Tulsa Police Department. He said they may have won departmental awards, but those were not available for release Monday. Shelby remains on standard paid administrative leave, Tuell said.
Reaction to the videos
A day before the videos were released to the public, they were played to three separate groups.
Law enforcement officials saw the videos in one viewing. In another, Crutcher’s family and attorneys watched the recordings. In another, community leaders such as Rep. Regina Goodwin, several city councilors and county officials viewed the shooting.
Goodwin, who spoke to The Frontier on Monday morning, commended TPD for releasing the videos to the public so quickly.
However, despite praising TPD’s swift, transparent response, she was very critical of the shooting itself, saying it was clear that proper protocol wasn’t followed. She said there “should be outrage” at Crutcher’s death.
Goodwin was especially critical of the helicopter pilot’s comment that Crutcher looked like “a bad dude” who “might be on something.”
“What would possess him to say that?” she asked. “You’re bringing to this your preconceived notion of who we are, who black men are, and who black women are.
“We’re certainly hoping that the police department is going to work for justice on behalf of the Crutcher family,” she said. “I’m sure (the family) is weary.”
Kunzweiler, speaking at the press conference, called Crutcher’s death a “tragic event.”
“We all recognize that, and I recognize this is a difficult time for his family. All my sympathies are with them,” he said.
But, Kunzweiler said, the “rule of law needs to be adhered to,” and urged patience when it comes to his office making a decision on charges that might be filed against Shelby.
“We need to protect the integrity of the process,” he said. “While I recognize there is a desire to have a quick answer, a lot of that will depend on when I start getting reports and I am fully advised of the facts and circumstances.”
Mayor Dewey Bartlett said at Monday’s press conference that all of Tulsa “is in this situation together.”
“We do ask the community to have faith in these various institutions,” Bartlett said. “But when they demand accountability, we must deliver and we will deliver that accountability. When issues do present themselves to us, and to me as mayor, and when they demand change or improvements or alteration of policies, or procedures, or training, I assure you it will be done, and it will happen and it will be done swiftly and properly.”
At a protest outside the Tulsa County District Courthouse on Monday morning, Terence Crutcher’s son, Tyler Johnson, called his father an “uplifting” figure.
“A real person, you know, to look up to. He changed his life around, so I respect that,” Johnson said. “He was working, going to school, (his) music and all that. Just trying to get his life back on track.”
Andre Harris and Aidan Fraley, the brother and son of Eric Harris, also attended the press conference. Harris was shot and killed last year during a botched Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office raid.
Eric Harris’ death resulted in criminal charges and an eventual conviction against Robert Bates, the reserve deputy who shot him, as well as a grand jury that ultimately indicted Sheriff Stanley Glanz.
Andre Harris said following the press conference that he feels a sense of solidarity with the Crutcher family, having been in their position less than two years ago.
“I would love to give them a hug and give them my condolences,” he said.
“I wouldn’t wish this upon nobody, because the route you have to go, and what you have to go through to get justice, it almost seems impossible,” Harris said. “However, I can give the family hope, because what I thought was impossible I now know is possible.”
At a press conference outside the Tulsa County Courthouse late Monday afternoon, We The People Oklahoma founder Marq Lewis criticized Shelby for not rendering aid to Crutcher after the shooting, and called for Shelby to be arrested immediately.
“Right now, not tomorrow, not next week, but right now,” he said. “She gets a vacation, a paid vacation.”
Lewis said Shelby lives in Kellyville, which has a population of “about one percent African-American,” and called on the department to not have “people like that” patrolling in north Tulsa.
“Another thing we need is for the district attorney to recuse himself. We have said in the past that you cannot investigate yourself.”
Lewis called for Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s Attorney General, to assign an outside agency to handle Shelby’s potential prosecution.
At a press conference held by Crutcher’s relatives on Monday, Tiffany Crutcher said her twin brother just wanted to make his family proud.
“That ‘big, bad dude’ was my twin brother,” she said. “That ‘big, bad dude’ was a father. That ‘big, bad dude’ was a son. That ‘big, bad dude’ was enrolled at Tulsa Community College.
“He was trying to make us proud. That ‘big, bad dude’ loved God. That ‘big, bad dude’ was at church singing with all his flaws, every week.”
Last week, Tiffany got a text from her brother saying he was going to make his family proud.
Tiffany said Terence will never get that chance “because of the negligence and the incompetence and insensitivity, and because he was a ‘big, bad dude.’”
Tiffany said her family and lawyers are seeking that criminal charges be filed immediately against Shelby.
Several of Terence’s family members, along with their lawyers, gathered at the Greenwood Cultural Center for a press conference Monday afternoon to share their reactions to the video that showed Terence’s fatal shooting.
“(The video) is extremely disturbing,” said local attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons. “We couldn’t sleep last night, and we without a doubt believe this was an unjustified shooting that should not have happened.”
Solomon-Simmons said Terence was unarmed, wasn’t seen reaching into his vehicle, didn’t make any sudden movements, act belligerently or attack an officer.
Terence laid on the ground, bleeding out without any assistance, Solomon-Simmons said. It was reported that Terence died at the hospital, but that isn’t true, he said.
“Terence died on that street by himself in his own blood, without any help,” Solomon-Simmons said.
The family has retained attorneys Solomon-Simmons, Melvin C. Hall and national civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump.
Hall explained how the Fourth Amendment applies to the case and how lethal or deadly force can be used.
He said no one can be subject to an unreasonable search or seizure, and seizure has sometimes been defined as the use of deadly force.
“Any type of deadly force that isn’t preceded by some type of probable cause or reasonableness is presumed to be unconstitutional and against the Constitution of the United States,” Hall said.
He said there are three exceptions, but none of them are applicable to this case.
The first exception is when someone who has committed a crime is fleeing the law.
“This man did not commit a crime,” Hall said. “He was not approached because he was suspected of committing a crime. He was having some difficulty with his vehicle, and that’s it.
“There had been no communication with dispatch to the officers to indicate that there was a crime that had been committed or that he was a suspect of some type of crime.”
The next exception would be some sort of emergency situation, Hall said.
“I don’t see that after reviewing the video myself, of any type of emergency situation other than a citizen that is in need of assistance,” he said.
The final exception would be if officers or the public are in some type of jeopardy of harm, Hall said.
“What you see in the video, when you see that there was overwhelming police presence. There were four police officers that were shown in the video,” he said.
Hall explained that three of the officers were at a safe distance from Terence, who was not in any type of condition that would indicate their lives, or anyone’s life, were in danger.
Hall also referenced the helicopter flying above the scene that also recorded the incident.
“So there’s absolutely no justification regarding the three exceptions that exist, which would authorize the use of lethal force,” he said.
Crump said fatal shootings such as Terence’s aren’t a unique issue in Tulsa, because they happen across the nation, as well. The nation has seen an epidemic of unarmed people of color being killed, he said, and in many cases, it’s often made out to seem as if they caused their own deaths.
The shooting was “senseless,” Crump said, and “it makes no sense to anyone who sees that video.”
He called on the public to not demonize Terence, who needed help after his car had stalled in the middle of the road.
“He needed help, a hand,” Crump said. “But what he got was a bullet in his lungs.”
Crump said the only peace that might come after the fatal shooting is through justice.
“So if we start this journey to justice with Terence Crutcher, it sends a message to leadership that, it is tense, and just trying to alleviate the tension would not be justice for his four little children,” he said.
Tiffany asked that any protests be peaceful because it would be appropriate to the nature and legacy of her family.