Tulsa police officer acquitted in shooting death of unarmed black man to return to duty

Tulsa Police Department via AP/File

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — A white Oklahoma police officer acquitted in the killing of an unarmed black man last year will be allowed to return to the force — although she won’t be allowed on patrol, Tulsa’s police chief said Friday.

Police Chief Chuck Jordan announced in a one-sentence email that officer Betty Jo Shelby will return to active duty. Shelby has been on unpaid leave since being charged Sept. 22 with first-degree manslaughter in the shooting of 40-year-old Terence Crutcher. A jury found Shelby not guilty Wednesday, although the foreman said in a memo filed with the court Friday that jurors weren’t comfortable with the idea that she was “blameless” in Crutcher’s death.

Shelby plans to return to work on Monday, her attorney, Shannon McMurray, said. Shelby is still the subject of an internal affairs investigation, which is standard procedure for officers involved in similar shootings. McMurray had previously said she wasn’t sure Shelby would even want to go back to police work, fearing it would be too dangerous.

Crutcher’s family had called Thursday for city leaders to block Shelby from returning to her job. A family spokesman didn’t return a call seeking comment Friday.

Crutcher was shot after Shelby approached him in a city street where his SUV had broken down. Shelby had said she fired her weapon out of fear because Crutcher ignored her commands to lie down and kept reaching into his pockets. But prosecutors said she overreacted, arguing that Crutcher had his hands in the air and wasn’t combative — part of which was confirmed by police video that showed Crutcher walking away from Shelby with his hands above his head.

The jury foreman said in a court filing Friday that Shelby could have used a less-lethal method to subdue Crutcher. The foreman argued in the three-page memo that if Shelby had attempted to use her stun gun before Crutcher reached his vehicle, it “could have saved his life and that potential scenario was seemingly an option available to her.” Shelby’s backing partner deployed his stun gun at the same time that Shelby fired her handgun.

The foreman and others didn’t identify themselves in the memo, requesting anonymity. The jury comprised eight women and four men and included three African-Americans. The jurors deliberated for about nine hours before reaching their verdict.

McMurray acknowledged Shelby could have deployed her stun gun instead of a firearm, but said the officer had to make a “split-second” decision because Shelby thought Crutcher was armed. No gun was found.

“Could she have used a Taser? Yes, Might she be dead? Yes,” McMurray said. “It’s a classic law school exam: All the answers are right, but which ones are the most right?”

McMurray said Shelby’s return to the force means “she’s getting the due process she wasn’t afforded when (prosecutors) jumped the gun and charged her.”

Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, who filed the manslaughter charge six days after the shooting, declined to comment Friday.

Crutcher’s family said the verdict was a setback to racial harmony in Tulsa. The acquittal shows a larger failure of the legal system — and by extension society — to recognize the value of a black man’s life. Their heartbreak echoed that of families across the U.S. following a spate of killings of black people that has fueled a national debate over race and policing.

Protests over Crutcher’s death and Shelby’s verdict have been peaceful. Jurors didn’t decide the officer’s fate until after 9 p.m. Wednesday. Afterward, about 100 people marched and blocked an intersection, but no one was arrested.

While Tulsa may get little national attention, racial disparities in mostly black north Tulsa are obvious: Neighborhoods without a real grocery store and a ZIP code where a black baby has 10 years less life expectancy than a white baby.

But the deepest scar of all is a swath that has yet to recover economically from a 1921 race riot where hundreds of black residents were killed — their homes and businesses burned to the ground.

Tulsa’s population of 400,000 is about 16 percent black and one of nine city council members is African-American.




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