When a cop's fear means a death sentence

Terence Crutcher's sister speaks to CNN
Terence Crutcher's sister speaks to CNN

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Terence Crutcher's sister speaks to CNN 03:22

Story highlights

  • Issac Bailey: The fears of a Tulsa cop who killed unarmed black man may well trump concern over man's death at trial
  • The officer and her supporters apparently believe we must protect cops from consequences of their actions, Bailey writes

Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)When Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby said that she'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by six, she was simply being rational -- because she knows her badge and uniform make her nearly immune to conviction if she is charged with committing a crime, like manslaughter, while on duty.

Issac Bailey
Another message is clear in her statement: that a police officer's fear, real or imagined, should always be prioritized. That's the takeaway from Shelby's "60 Minutes" interview Sunday night, only weeks before she faces trial for first-degree manslaughter after being caught on video shooting Terence Crutcher.
Shelby likely knows that police officers are rarely charged for killing someone while in the line of duty, and it is rarer still for a jury to find them guilty. That she is facing trial at all, according to her husband, is evidence of a growing "war on police." Never mind that his wife killed an unarmed man whom another officer had declared looked like "a bad dude."
    In other words, the system is being unfair to the person who walked away from the encounter, but worked well for the man whose body has already been "carried by six" to a gravesite of his family's choosing.
    Crutcher did not comply with Shelby's shouted commands. By some strange reasoning, that made it perfectly reasonable to shoot him on the side of the road, then blame him on national TV for his own death.
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    Forget about Crutcher's walking away. Ignore that he had his hands in the air. It doesn't matter that he made not a single aggressive move, that he was committing no crime. He wasn't a suspect in a series of unsolved rapes or murders or bank robberies. He was an imperfect man with drug residue in his system and a stalled vehicle in the road.
    He essentially committed suicide by cop, Shelby is convinced, because of what she and other officers said was a split-second move to lower his hands when he neared the window of his SUV. For that, he deserved death. Asked if there was anything that could have prevented that shooting, Shelby said that Crutcher could have simply complied, not that police officers need to be better trained or rethink what they've been taught or show even a split-second more restraint before needlessly taking a life.
    That's the case in a nutshell. And that's why police officers who speak this way, and the juries who are likely to believe them, keep worsening the divide we face. We are to always empathize with the police officer, never the dead man.
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    It doesn't matter that police officers are trained in a variety of ways and paid to handle stressful situations, and also matters little that they chose to put on the uniform to take on those responsibilities. Simply put, if they are afraid, they get to shoot you dead.
    Why didn't Crutcher comply? Maybe the stress of seeing a police officer made him fear for his life, particularly an officer who had pulled out her gun and kept it pointed at him the entire time as he slowly walked back to his SUV with both hands high in the air. Why isn't Crutcher's response considered rational -- to be so afraid of the police that compliance becomes nearly impossible, that "false moves" are inevitable -- given that we've seen police officers shoot men in the back while they are running away and are still not convicted?
    Maybe he was having a manic moment. Maybe he was complying the way he was taught, to immediately get into a position of surrender, and was walking back to his SUV to retrieve not a weapon, but ID, or proof that he owned the vehicle.
    It appears not to matter to Shelby that Crutcher had no gun or knife or baseball bat. It matters only that there was the slightest possibility that he could have. She is arguing for a kind of shoot-first-ask-questions-later immunity.
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    Should that also apply to the scared woman involved in a road rage incident? To the gang member who accidentally crosses over into the wrong territory and (wrongly) imagines the 15-year-old boy at the park was reaching for a gun when he was just pulling a baseball from his bag?
    Should the startled homeowner be allowed to instantly shoot the strange man who knocks on his front door at night to protect his family from a perceived potential harm? Or should the shoot-first-ask-questions-later immunity apply only to police officers like Shelby?
    Police officers are heroic and run towards danger. That's what we are told. They put themselves in harm's way for our protection. But when they display something different from courage, instead giving into their fear, we are supposed to protect them from the consequences of their actions.
    That's the message being sent by Shelby and those who defend her. No one should be surprised when a jury of her peers honors that contradiction and simultaneously sends two messages: to cops that no matter what they do, they will be protected, and to men like Crutcher that at any moment, a cop's fear can sentence them to a death that will almost always be deemed justified.