Key questions about the shooting of Eric Harris remain unanswered one year later. Officials say morale at the sheriff's office is slowly improving.
Editor’s note: This the third part of a series about the shooting of Eric Harris and resignation of Sheriff Stanley Glanz.
Reporters fill the room, waiting impatiently as Tulsa police Sgt. Jim Clark, his face sweaty and bright red, tries to make sense of a video they are about to watch.
The short clip of an unarmed man running before he is pinned to the ground and shot is shocking. It ends abruptly after the man, Eric Harris, says he is having trouble breathing and an officer responds “Fuck your breath.”
Clark is visibly nervous while facing a throng of media hungry to see this video, now eight days after the controversial shooting. The officer’s cold-hearted comment eventually touched off a social media campaign and petition to “Fire Officer ‘Fuck Your Breath.’ ”
The Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office was suddenly under an intense national spotlight.
Clark ticks off the reasons why Harris was treated by the task force as armed and dangerous: Harris had already sold drugs and a gun to an undercover officer. He was an ex-convict facing return to a long prison sentence. And he was running in a manner that indicated he could be hiding a weapon.
The video, however, doesn’t support Clark’s claim about the weapon. Harris was swinging his arms wildly as he ran in basketball shorts, unlikely to conceal a weapon.
Clark has one more explanation for the shooting on April 2, 2015 by Reserve Deputy Bob Bates, who said he accidentally fired his gun instead of a Taser. Clark tells the media that Bates, not Harris, was “the true victim … of slips and capture.”
The unproven theory goes like this: A trained person will intend to do one thing, but will instead be taken over, or “captured” by another instinct in a high-stress situation. It’s likely to be used in Bates’ defense of his second-degree manslaughter charge for Harris’ killing, set for trial April 18.
Clark wasn’t representing the Tulsa Police Department that day. Legal bills show the sheriff’s office paid him $3,000 in “expert witness” fees to pitch the theory of “slips and captures” to reporters during the press conference.
The sheriff’s office also paid Dr. Bill Lewinski, a leading proponent of the theory, $5,000 in expert witness fees that month, records show.
Lewinski, an expert who frequently testifies for police involved in shootings, may testify at Bates’ trial about slips and capture. A New York Times article on Lewinski said he trains officers to “shoot first, and he’ll answer questions later,” and his detractors have nicknamed him “The Angel of Death.”
Questions linger one year later
Despite the impression Clark gave that Bates was an unknowing victim of the phenomenon, statements Bates made on the Today Show one week later raise questions about when he learned about slips and capture, before or after the shooting?
“This has happened a number of times around the country. I have read about it in the past,” Bates told Today Show host Matt Lauer during a rambling interview on April 17, 2015. “I thought to myself after reading several cases, ‘I don’t understand how this can happen.’ ”
One year after Harris was killed, there are still unanswered questions.
Why was Bates carrying a gun not allowed by policy and that he had not qualified with on at the range, according to records?
Bates had access to a department-issued semi-automatic handgun but on that day, he instead carried a laser-sighted Smith & Wesson Airlight .357 hammerless revolver not allowed by sheriff’s office policy.
That model of revolver is a poor choice for modern law enforcement use because it has a large recoil when fired, is inaccurate at longer ranges and only holds five bullets. The sheriff’s office issues deputies Glock .45-caliber semiautomatic weapons.
In a tape-recorded meeting between then-Capt. Billy McKelvey and Harris’ brother, Andre, a few days after the shooting, McKelvey said Bates got out of his pickup with his gun in his hand. This statement has not been contradicted by Bates, who declined several requests for an interview through his attorney, Clark Brewster.
Why did Bates get out of his pickup with a gun already in his hand to pursue a fleeing man already being chased by several other deputies?
Bates’ statement to investigators — given four days after the shooting but before the video was released — contains several claims that turned out to be untrue.
He states that he joined the reserve program in 2007 when he didn’t join until 2008.
He also claims Harris kept reaching for his waistband while he ran, as if he were hiding a gun. Though Bates may have perceived it that way, the video does not show Harris repeatedly reaching for his waistband.
Bates also states he heard Harris say after the shooting that he had taken PCP, which can make people react unpredictably and violently. Harris’ autopsy found evidence he had taken methamphetamine, but it found no trace of PCP.
Some questions about the shooting and its aftermath may be answered during Bates’ upcoming trial, including whether video of the shootings aftermath exists.
Records show that evidence turned over to Bates’ attorneys in the criminal case includes a thumb drive containing a report by the U.S. Secret Service and the video associated with the IVUE recording glasses.
The federal agency has equipment to recover deleted or damaged video files, though it is unknown whether the Secret Service was able to recover additional video after Harris was shot.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler’s office declined a request by The Frontier for the Secret Service report.
Though the videotape released to the public documents what led up to Harris’ shooting, events between the time Harris was shot and the time he was loaded into an EMSA ambulance have been murky.
Former Undersheriff Tim Albin claimed the batteries on the recording glasses worn by a task force member died at that time. The iVUE glasses can record for up to two hours before the battery needs to be charged.
Report set off downward spiral for Glanz
The shooting would likely have been an isolated event, reported and soon forgotten, had any other deputy been involved. But Bates had a history of complaints within his own department. And according to an investigation by the Tulsa World, supervisors had been pressured to falsify his training records.
As first reported by The Frontier, an internal report in 2009 found that Bates was given favorable treatment by former Undersheriff Tim Albin and others. When supervisors told Albin that Bates wasn’t qualified to be acting on his own in the field, Albin famously told them “this is a shit sandwich and you’ll just have to eat it.”
Publication of the leaked report touched off a year-long, downward spiral for Glanz and his top advisers. The seven-term sheriff was once among the most popular elected officials in the state. He ended up charged with two misdemeanors, including withholding the report.
A parade of top officials at the sheriff’s office were fired or pushed to resign.
Gone were Albin and Capt. Tom Huckeby, both central figures in the 2009 internal affairs investigation into Bates’ favorable treatment. Glanz, known for his hands-off management style, would say he “put too much trust” in Albin, who rose through the ranks during a 30-year career at TCSO.
Next to go was Major Shannon Clark, the agency’s public information officer. Capt. Billy McKelvey followed shortly after Clark.
Clark and McKelvey both told The Frontier they were pushed out because Glanz incorrectly believed they had a hand in leaking the Bates internal affairs report.
Clark told The Frontier he refused to lie to reporters about the existence of the internal report. McKelvey said the report was found in an area that many people, including inmate trustees, had access to.
Both said they remained loyal to the sheriff while they worked for him but Glanz used them as scapegoats.
One of the highest ranking officials to survive the fallout was Glanz’s political advisor, Terry Simonson, who tried to navigate the sheriff through the controversy. Rex Berry, the Democratic candidate running for sheriff, has already said he would dismiss Simonson, who has a controversial history of his own.
A citizens group, We The People Oklahoma, gathered enough signatures for a grand jury investigation, which survived a legal challenge by Glanz that went all the way to the Supreme Court.
The grand jury met for nine weeks and issued two indictments against Glanz. The misdemeanor charges allege he unlawfully withheld the internal affairs report on Bates and collected a $600 monthly allowance while driving a county car.
Though the OSBI said it would investigate concerns about the sheriff’s office, the agency has made no public statements about the status of its investigation since it began.
The former sheriff has said little publicly, except for occasional offhand comments. His attorney, Scott Wood, declined a request for an interview for this series.
Glanz told The Frontier in September that he was “tired of the bullshit.” By the end of that month, Glanz decided he had had enough and resigned. His undersheriff, Rick Weigel, was named acting sheriff and promised changes including more transparency.
However Weigel’s tenure lasted less than four months. He and Chief Deputy John Bowman abruptly resigned in January, saying they wanted to spend more time with their families.
Those resignations followed a contentious meeting with other county officials about the fate of the partially built Stanley Ganz training center.
Acting Sheriff Michelle Robinette, at the helm for less than three months, said the year of controversy has been difficult to endure for all employees.
“We couldn’t go anywhere, we couldn’t do anything without somebody saying, ‘Hey, what do you think?’ That was really hard for everybody, from the front line deputy, detention officer all the way up.”
Robinette has also weathered her share of critical news. A federal jury found March 2 that she and the former sheriff were “deliberately indifferent” to civil rights violations involving a teenage girl who said she was repeatedly sexually assaulted in the jail by a detention officer.
Though Robinette was named as the official representative of the sheriff’s office, she was in charge of jail operations when the girl was held there in 2010.
Robinette and Glanz may face more court time, as more than a dozen federal civil rights lawsuits remain pending against the sheriff’s office. Taxpayers will be on the hook for any judgments or attorneys’ fees if the plaintiffs prevail.
While many in the sheriff’s office are looking to a special election to quell the constant upheaval at TCSO, even that process has been controversial. The special election to fill Glanz’s seat will be held next week but the winner will only have a brief window before he has to file for the full four-year term.
Regardless of the election’s outcome, those who remain at the sheriff’s office will carry out their duties with pride, Robinette said.
“Uncertainty I think is where we’re at now but I think that the morale is a little bit higher. The strength of the office as a whole is better … so that when the changes come, they are a little bit better prepared to face it head on.”
She disagrees with the notion that the public lost trust in the sheriff’s office.
“The public as a whole, I don’t think ever lost trust in the deputy that responds to the call.”
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