I was on Twitter last night when I found out that Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby had been acquitted for killing Terence Crutcher, an unarmed Black man. There have been so many police killings of unarmed Blacks with so few charges brought or guilty verdicts that I have become numb. But yesterday’s verdict of Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby struck a raw nerve. As a former prosecutor, I respect law abiding police; I detest those officers who lack the temperament, skills and self-control to wear a police uniform.
Terence Crutcher is just the latest unarmed Black victim in a decades long string of Black victims killed at the hands of police without justice. On September 16, 2016, Betty Shelby stated she fired her gun killing Terence Crutcher out of fear. That is the standard response by police officers used in these cases. It’s as if it’s in their police training manual of what to say when you shoot and kill a Black person. Nine white jurors and three Blacks evidently believed her version. Crutcher had his hands up when he was shot by Shelby, as evidenced on two videos.
After the trial of former police officer Michael Slager, I have come to believe that most police officers can get away with murder of blacks with impunity. With a video and a bystander filming and watching on, a jury could not reach a unanimous verdict in Slager’s trial. Slager was caught on tape shooting Walter Scott in the back as Scott ran away. Slager gave the same verbatim response as Shelby that he feared for his life. How one fears for his or her own life as the perceived threat is fleeing –defies logic. A jury trial ended in a mistrial. Slager later plead guilty to federal civil rights charges, thereby avoiding a re- trial and a state trial. He will be sentenced later this year.
And then there’s the other side of the coin. Blacks receive jail sentences for killing dogs or stupidly and accidently shooting themselves. NFL quarterback Michael Vick was sentenced to 23 months in prison for harming and killing dogs. And former NFL player Plaxico Burress received a two year sentence for accidently shooting himself while at a night club. Due to New York’s stringent gun laws, Burress likely pled guilty. With both being black, Vick and Burress also likely pled guilty due to the likelihood of a guilty verdict against a Black man, if tried. A jury will more likely render a guilty verdict against a Black man for killing a dog or almost killing himself that against a white police officer for killing an unarmed Black.
While I am not a Black man, I fear for all Blacks who encounter a police officer under circumstances that a white police officer can assert his fear. That’s just about any circumstance imaginable. Racial disparities exist in the killings of unarmed blacks versus whites. According to statistics, African Americans killed by police are more likely to be unarmed than whites. In 2015, 40% of all unarmed persons shot and killed by police were Black men. Yet, Black men make up only 6% of the U.S. population.
I would like to end on a positive note. But I am outraged at the constant loss of unarmed Black lives by police officers who cower under the guise of their own innate racism.
Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, legal analyst and former Baltimore prosecutor.