Editor’s Note: Detective Chelsea Whitaker discussed the Terrence Crutcher Shooting involving Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby within a week of the incident. It was one of our most discussed articles and now, after Officer Shelby was acquitted, Detective Whitaker has a followup to that original article:
The following is my opinion based on information made available to me.
The jury was correct in finding Officer Betty Shelby not guilty for killing Terrance Crutcher. This finding is pretty much consistent with my first post that I made about this topic prior to having any facts. I will not restate all of those detailed explanations again, but feel free to read that narrative if you would like to do so. I will add some insight resulting from statements made during the trial. Court documents have not been released at this point and I would rather wait until they become public record, but too many people are asking me about this case again so I will give an updated opinion based on the witness statements released and statements made by Lori Fullbright, who is a reporter for News 6 in Tulsa. She was inside of the courtroom and posted updates after each day of the trial. I messaged her to confirm some things and she was gracious enough to respond to me.
The main factor in determining Officer Betty Shelby’s innocence or guilt was the position of the window. If the window would have been in the up position, I would have believed that she accidentally fired her weapon because of hearing someone next to her fire a taser. In incidents when officers accidentally fire their weapons, this is one of the main circumstances in which this happens. The jury believed that Officer Turnbough fired his taser and Officer Shelby fired her gun at the same time. This evidence dismisses the theory that she possibly accidentally fired her weapon upon hearing a taser discharge next to her.
The window was down. The prosecution and defense agreed that the window was down. The jury agreed that the window was down and that Terrance Crutcher reached inside of the window. A detective testified that at full extension, the window measured 22 inches. During the shooting, the window was raised only 10 inches. The window was down. The family attorney made numerous statements to the media as soon as the incident occurred. I don’t blame him for doing so. He enlarged a picture claiming that it was proof that the window was completely up. The nation became enraged and took that statement as fact. It was proven to be false. I am not mad at them for doing so because it is common practice for attorneys to gain control of the media early in incidents such as this one. It is his job to advocate for his client, but he was wrong. I also think it was tacky for Betty Shelby to do the media interview prior to the beginning of the trial. As with the Crutcher family attorney, I respect her right to go to the media, but I still think it was tacky.
I will not repeat my long narrative about engaging with people on PCP. You can reread it if you like, but in summary, it isn’t a good idea. If you don’t believe me, you can read the story and watch the video about the female Chicago police officer who had her head smashed into the concrete by a man high on PCP. She should have killed him, but she didn’t because she did not want to be criticized by the entire country for her actions. Her partner tased the suspect and that sent him into a deeper rage. He began to pull her hair from her scalp and bang her head against the concrete. Her partner continued to tase him repeatedly and it had no effect on the suspect. It took several officers to finally free the female officer from the suspect’s grip. My experience, as well as any other officer who has dealt with people high on PCP, tells me that using a taser isn’t a good option when trying to subdue people on PCP.
Even with all of that said, it is still worth it to try and use the taser if it is safe to do so. When people are mentally ill and/or high on PCP, sometimes tasers aren’t as effective and it simply makes the person angry. I would never recommend anyone to deploy a taser on a person who is suspected to be mentally ill or high, unless there is another officer there with a gun drawn just in case the situation escalates. That way, one person can use the taser and if it does not work, the other person has a gun ready. When an officer deploys a taser and it doesn’t work, the officer must re-holster the taser and transition to their gun before a suspect engages them. If an officer drops their taser and someone else picks it up, the officer is accountable for whatever that person does with the taser. Again, this job is impossible. If the suspect is in somewhat of a docile state, an officer might be able to safely deploy a taser alone, but I do not find that option favorable. In the case with Terrance Crutcher, I don’t believe that Betty Shelby should have had her taser out while she was alone with him. She called for assistance over the radio and there was no doubt in my mind that she would have been comfortable holding him at gunpoint until assistance arrived. He changed the circumstances by trying to get inside of the vehicle.
I don’t blame civilians for not understanding something that doesn’t apply to them. If you are not an officer, you don’t understand the danger of deploying a taser while alone with a suspect high on PCP. The jury agreed that Betty Shelby acted consistent with her training in the moment that she shot Terrance Crutcher, but they wondered if she could have done something different prior to the shooting. Some jurors wondered if she could have holstered her weapon and tried to tase him in the moments before he reached the vehicle. Under no circumstance can I imagine tasing a suspect while alone with a suspect as large as Crutcher, high on PCP and behaving erratically. It makes sense for the jurors to wonder why she didn’t tase him sooner, but it makes no sense to an officer, who has dealt with a person on PCP, for them to holster a gun and try to tase someone high on PCP.
That juror that made those comments that he didn’t believe that Shelby should be an officer again is entitled to his opinion. I am sure Betty Shelby doesn’t want to be in patrol again anyway. I find it difficult to value his opinion as he obviously has no law enforcement experience. It is unnerving for citizens to judge the actions of law enforcement officers because they can’t relate to the job. After the Trayvon Martin trial, in which George Zimmerman should have been found guilty, I heard a juror give an interview. She was a white woman who appeared as if she had never been in a fight in her life and was clearly oblivious to the realities of others. I don’t know if that woman was racist or not so I won’t speak about that. I saw genuine confusion in her face when she stated that she couldn’t understand why Trayvon continued to punch George Zimmerman after he overpowered him. That statement blew my mind. She had difficulty understanding why a person would keep fighting a person who produced a gun and attacked them for no reason at all! This woman and numerous other cases prove why it is imperative to have a jury “of your peers.” I don’t think it is fair to have a jury full of officers because officers have proven that they can’t always be fair in judging their own, but hearing some of the statements made by jurors can be scary. There isn’t a clear answer to this problem. Statements from jury members always shock me, but I rarely give them much weight when they are speaking on issues that they have never encountered in their lives. Their job is to apply the law and that’s it.
He was the officer who arrived with the taser just before Crutcher reached into his vehicle. He stated that the hair on the back of his neck stood up because of Crutcher’s behavior. He didn’t have the time to process his behavior like Betty Shelby. Shelby stated over the police radio that she had a guy who would not show her his hands. That is very alarming for an officer to hear, but she didn’t have time to broadcast that I believe I have a guy high on PCP and describe his behavior. If she had time to do all of that, Officer Turnbough may have fired his taser as soon as he exited his vehicle. He didn’t have that information and he was still trying to process the situation. Officer Turnbough stated that he fired his taser when he saw Crutcher reach into the vehicle. Betty Shelby stated that she fired her gun when he reached into the vehicle. Turnbough stated that he was trained not to let suspects get back into vehicles. Fullbright reported that the prosecutor asked Officer Turnbough how often he finds hidden guns on suspects and he responded by stating 10% – 30 % of the time. The defense jumped on that mistake by asking him how many times does a suspect have to have a gun in which he could be killed and he replied only once.
Terrance Crutcher’s Vehicle
Per Fullbright, witnesses who encountered Crutcher testified that the engine and the radio were running when they encountered Crutcher during this incident. A full diagnostic test showed that Terrance Crutcher’s vehicle was fully operational. I am not surprised about that because as I fully detailed in my prior narrative about this case, there was nothing about the placement of his vehicle that signaled that he had car trouble. It is extremely consistent for people that are high on PCP to think that their car will blow up and feel the need to jump out of it quickly. The family claimed that Terrance Crutcher simply had car trouble and needed help. As an officer, I know that some family members are emotional because they lost a loved one and it is human nature to defend that loved one at all costs. Some officers do the same thing when an officer is completely wrong. The family wasn’t there and I find it difficult to believe that they knew that he had car problems when they weren’t there with the vehicle.
2 of the 3 witnesses were black. None of the witnesses knew each other or anyone else involved with the case.
He stated that Crutcher was acting “unnatural and zombie-like.” He stated that he was afraid that he might get carjacked, so he decided to leave the scene. His wife thought that he might have medical problems.
She got out to help Crutcher. She asked him if he needed help three times and he didn’t answer. He just mumbled something under his breath. She stated that Crutcher ran to his car and opened the door and asked her to come to the car several times. She thought he possibly had a gun. Crutcher yelled “it was about to blow” and chased her to her car. She left because of his behavior. After she called 911, she returned and he was screaming “it is on fire, it is on fire.”
She stated that he seemed upset and he was yelling that his car was on fire. She stated that he was sweating and that his behavior sent chills up her spine. This is the same feeling that Officer Turnbough had when he encountered Crutcher that night.
First Incident with an Officer
During a prior incident with police, Crutcher refused commands to stop walking away from the officer. He also refused to show his hands and get on the ground. The officer tased Crutcher twice. He behaved this way while the officer had a rifle pointed at him. These officers had the ideal scenario in which to operate a taser safely. This is irrelevant as it relates to Shelby, but it shows how he consistently did not follow instructions from law enforcement.
I don’t believe criminal history should be allowed in trial because I understand the affect it can have on jurors. I am explaining what has been revealed to those reading this so that you can understand how bizarre his behavior was and how it wasn’t an anomaly.
Second Incident with an Officer
Another officer witnessed Crutcher fire a gun through a window. Even after seeing that, the officer didn’t shoot Crutcher. He ordered him out of his vehicle and Crutcher made a movement towards his right ankle. The officer was still able to apprehend him without killing him. When his ankle was searched, Crutcher had a .25 caliber pistol in his sock.
Third Incident with an Officer
Crutcher had another incident where he was tased several times because he refused to show his hands to an officer. Crutcher’s father showed up at the scene and admitted that his son had an “ongoing problem” with PCP. His family knew that he was an addict. I am not judging him for being an addict because we all have them in our families. I am an advocate for getting them help and supporting their efforts to turn their lives around. I don’t doubt that Crutcher was changing his life, but if you have an addict in your family, you know that they typically go through several relapses before they are able to remain sober. It appears that he had several encounters with police in which they were able to subdue him without shooting him. The longer a person plays with fire, the more likely the person will eventually get burned. Terrance Crutcher had a history of playing with fire because he had a history of refusing to comply with orders given to him by officers and he was battling addiction to PCP. That is a toxic combination. His final refusal cost him his life.
Family / Attorney Statements
Crutcher’s representatives stated that he did nothing wrong. There isn’t an officer reading this that doesn’t repeatedly encounter people that try to tell them that they haven’t done anything wrong. Crutcher did do something wrong. He parked his vehicle in the middle of the street blocking traffic, he was intoxicated in public, he ran around in a public street and he did not comply with an officer’s commands. That makes him a criminal and that means he did something wrong. She gave him repeated loud verbal commands to stop and to not enter the vehicle and he disregarded them. Civilians do not get to determine which rules they will follow and if they think the offense is substantial enough that they should comply. He did something wrong. You may find that these violations are minimal, but combined with his behavior, Betty Shelby had no way of knowing his intentions and a reasonable officer under the same circumstances would have responded the same way.
As a rookie officer, I was driving to answer a call when I noticed a guy behaving strangely in a parking lot. I just finished training and didn’t know ANYTHING about being an officer. He kept running around his vehicle and shuffling items inside of his vehicle. I stopped and asked him if he needed some help. He didn’t answer me. I was a rookie and far from comfortable commanding a scene and making decisive actions. I didn’t use an authoritative voice while talking to him either. Many rookie officers are uncomfortable detaining people unless there is an obvious offense such as murder. I was thinking that he might be mentally ill, but I wasn’t sure and I didn’t control him. I let him reach in and out of his vehicle several times. The last time he reached into his vehicle, he removed a worn Bible, handed it to me and continued to run around the vehicle. I was so confused and wished that I never stopped in the first place. Eventually, a veteran officer saw the situation and he came over to assist me. The veteran officer was a dark skinned, older, white male with a bushy mustache. He looked like an extra from the movie Tombstone. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t ecstatic that he was there. I was an idiot and knew nothing about police work.
The veteran officer asked me what was going on and I told him. He kept his eyes on the strange man the entire time he talked to me. Before I could finish explaining the situation, the veteran officer screamed at the man to stop and get away from the vehicle. I don’t even remember the veteran officer drawing his weapon, but like most rookies, he had his out so I took mine out, totally confused about what we were doing with our guns out. The veteran officer ordered the man to get on the ground. He didn’t get onto the ground so the veteran officer ordered me to put him on the ground and handcuff him. Again, I was a total idiot and I was putting him on the ground like I was helping my grandmother into a beach chair. The veteran officer holstered his weapon and put the man on the ground himself. He put the man in the back of his vehicle and then he told me to go look inside the strange man’s driver’s side window. I didn’t see anything. The veteran officer could have been a jerk to me, but he chose to teach me how to be a good officer instead. Then he told me to sit in the passenger seat of the strange man’s vehicle. All I remembered was how the air conditioning was hitting my face as I was exhausted from the Texas heat. The veteran officer walked around to the driver’s side window and stood there. He asked me again if I saw anything and I said no. He shook his head, but gave me a warm smile as if he was calling me an idiot in his head, but he didn’t want to break my spirit. He looked at me for about 10 seconds and I began to look all around the car and couldn’t see anything.
Then I saw it. I clinched my butt cheeks so tightly that I almost caught a cramp. There was a pistol wedged between the door and the door handle. After my life flashed before my eyes, I began to replay how I let him casually reach into that window several times. I couldn’t believe that he chose to hand me his Bible instead of a mouth full of lead. The veteran officer walked away as I am sure he knew that I needed a minute to be alone. I felt like a toddler in time out who was told to think about their actions. My law enforcement experience grew exponentially that day. I decided to get out of the vehicle and the veteran officer took me over to the rear of his vehicle as he began to speak with the strange man. The strange man was sobbing in the back seat. The veteran officer asked him what was wrong and the man told him that he suffered from severe depression and that his wife left him and took his kids. The veteran officer continued to speak with him and calmed him down. The strange man began to tell the veteran officer how he thought about killing himself and he thought about killing the police. He continued to ramble about other things, but my mind stopped working after he said that he thought about killing the police. Slowly, I realized that I was the police and therefore he thought about killing me. I just knew that wasn’t what I just heard. While he was talking, I blurted out “what the fuck did you just say?” He repeated that he thought about killing himself and the police, then he continued to casually talk as if he didn’t just say that.
The veteran officer smirked and looked at me as if to say yea he was talking about you stupid rookie, but he didn’t say that to me. I walked off and sat back inside the strange man’s vehicle because I needed his air conditioning again. I don’t know why I didn’t get in my own vehicle, but I made his vehicle my thinking chair. The veteran officer knew that I was done for the day and I assume he planned for someone else to take the strange man to the hospital for evaluation. The veteran officer explained to me the importance of officer safety. He told me how I should never let a suspect reach inside of a vehicle. I told him that I knew something was wrong, but I wasn’t sure what exactly he did wrong, so I wasn’t comfortable controlling him. He told me that he understood that, but it could have cost me my life. He explained to me how officers can be wrong about a person as long as a reasonable officer in the same circumstances could come to the same conclusion. I learned a valuable lesson that day. I don’t even remember the veteran officer leaving me there. It was like he mounted a horse and rode off into the sunset or something. All officers have endless stories of how they could have died. Those stories form the basis for why officers do some of the things that they do. They also create the distance between the reality of officers and that of civilians.
If the window of the vehicle was closed and Terrance Crutcher simply pulled on the door handle. He would still be here today. If Terrance Crutcher would have run around in circles, and never attempted to reach into the vehicle, he would still be here today. If he would have walked down the road with his hands in the air, he would be here today. He changed the circumstances when he reached into the vehicle. Period.
I am aware of the story of the juror who said that he voted not guilty so that he could leave because he was tired and hungry. That was irresponsible on his part, but it still does not change the facts of the case. It is tragic that Terrance Crutcher is dead, but his own actions lead to his death. Officers do not have to wait until a gun is pointed in their direction before they defend themselves. If that were the case, no one would be officers.
Standard for Judging Excessive Force
The standard used to determine if an officer’s actions are excessive come from the Supreme Court Case Graham v. Connor. The Supreme Court ruled that “the Fourth Amendment ‘reasonableness’ inquiry is whether the officers’ actions are objectively reasonable in light of the facts and circumstances confronting them, without regard to their underlying intent or motivation. The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, and its calculus must embody an allowance for the fact that police officers are often forced to make split-second decisions about the amount of force necessary in a particular situation. The reasonableness of a particular use of force must be judged from the perspective of a reasonable officer on scene, rather than with 20/20 vision or hindsight.”
If this were not the case, there would be no officers period! This job is impossible. It is easy to watch a horrific incident on television and scream at the person living the horror and tell them what they should do to survive, when you already know if the suspect had a gun or not. The court recognizes this truth. The most important words in this statement by the court are that the acts are judged “from the perspective of a reasonable officer on scene.” That means that it is not judged by everyone at home who has never been in similar situations. That means that it isn’t judged by a prosecutor or defense attorney who gets paid to prove differently. That means that it isn’t judged by a juror’s opinion who wants to go home early. That even means that all the officers with opinions at home bickering about the case don’t matter either. The single most important question is what would a reasonable officer do that was on scene during the incident? She immediately told the dispatcher that she shot him. She didn’t try to cover up the incident or anything like that. She was confident in her observations. Even when people made comments to the media stating that the window was up, she stood by her statement that the window was down. A reasonable officer would shoot Terrance Crutcher under these circumstances after reaching into the vehicle.
As usual, if you have a question or don’t understand something and you can ask without being disrespectful, please ask. If you are an officer and can answer some of the questions without being disrespectful, please do so.
Chelsea Whitaker is a Dallas Area Police Officer and member of the 2005 Baylor Bear Basketball Team that won the National Championship. Her desire is to give others #perspective in order to #bridgethegap. She is a frequent contributor to Law Officer.