In the three years since a Tulsa police officer killed Terence Crutcher, a policing reform researcher says the department has improved an aspect of its use-of-force policy, but it still needs more work.
The Tulsa Police Department inserted language into its policy nine months ago to require that officers use de-escalation tactics or alternatives to higher levels of force whenever possible and appropriate.
A researcher with Campaign ZERO, a national police reform advocacy group, says that language improved TPD’s policy, but overall it remains vague in specifying when deadly force is OK. The researcher, Sam Sinyangwe, published a study three years ago about use-of-force policies that were associated with police departments having fewer fatal shootings.
“I think they’re on the right track, but I think there’s a lot more work to go,” Sinyangwe said of TPD, one of the 91 largest municipal police agencies he analyzed across the country.
Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan declined to be interviewed regarding policy changes after the Crutcher shooting, citing pending litigation with Crutcher’s estate. However, he stated that all of TPD’s policies are in accordance with standards from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) and International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).
Monday marks the third anniversary of Betty Shelby, a white officer, fatally shooting Crutcher, a black man, as he stood near the partly open driver’s window of his SUV at dusk on a north Tulsa road. No firearm was found on Crutcher nor in his vehicle.
Shelby’s defense team argued he didn’t respond to commands and lowered one hand, as if reaching inside for a weapon, prompting Shelby to pull the trigger as another officer simultaneously deployed a Taser. Crutcher supporters say video shows he didn’t make threatening movements and that both hands were raised when she fired her single shot.
Shelby was acquitted of first-degree manslaughter six months later in an eight-day trial. The jury’s foreman wrote that “many on the jury could never get comfortable with the concept of Betty Shelby being blameless for Mr. Crutcher’s death.”
City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper has publicly stated that she believes Shelby made a horrible mistake in shooting Crutcher and that Shelby refuses to acknowledge it.
Public scrutiny of the fatal encounter honed in on several areas for departmental improvement: implementing body-worn cameras, training on de-escalation techniques, teaching cultural competency and creating community advisory groups.
Each was implemented; however, use-of-force policy particulars weren’t scrutinized as closely.
The Campaign Zero study was released four days after Crutcher’s killing. It found departments with at least four of eight recommended use-of-force policies had 38% fewer killings per arrest than those with none or only one of the policies.
TPD ranked No. 56 out of 91 of the country’s largest departments in police killings per capita throughout the study’s time frame, from Jan. 1, 2015, through July 15, 2016.
At the time of the study, Tulsa police were credited with having three of the eight policies: requiring a verbal warning when possible before shooting, having a use-of-force continuum and banning choke and strangle holds (or limiting them to situations that necessitate lethal force).
Since then, it appears the agency has removed its ban on choke and strangle holds and added the de-escalation requirement to remain at three total. Those two changes were implemented in December 2018.
Sinyangwe, the Campaign Zero researcher, called the de-escalation verbiage a definite improvement, but he questioned why the policy doesn’t specifically require that officers exhaust all reasonable alternatives before resorting to deadly force.
“The specificity helps in terms of being able to evaluate situations,” Sinyangwe said. “It makes it very clear to officers when they can or can’t use deadly force. And it makes it easier for investigators attempting to determine whether the use of force was justified or not.”
TPD prohibits using deadly force “in a reckless manner,” Sinyangwe said, but the strongest policies are clear that option is only a last resort.
“It’s sort of ambiguous,” Sinyangwe said, noting vague wording is common in departments across the country. “You have to wonder why it’s written this way.”
The federal civil rights lawsuit filed by Crutcher’s estate alleges the department’s deadly force policy is “confusing” and “ambiguous.” The city denies those accusations in court documents.
Sinyangwe also emphasized that TPD policy doesn’t require comprehensive reporting for use of force — specifically, officers do not have to document when they point a firearm at a person.
Reasons for requiring such reporting are two-fold, he said: to learn how officers apply that technique (e.g., to gain compliance from a subject) and whether they needlessly escalate a situation by prematurely pointing a firearm.
Sinyangwe said officers may routinely point a gun at people for minor or routine infractions, or an officer may draw a firearm before it’s necessary and heighten the stakes of an encounter.
Once police in Oakland, California, began collecting that data, he said it became the single largest category of force applied.
“When an officer points a firearm at you, that’s definitely experienced as a force being used,” Sinyangwe said. “It’s a traumatic event, and it’s something worth tracking.”
A recent commissioned study of the Phoenix Police Department presented comprehensive reporting as its No. 1 recommendation after the city experienced an unprecedented increase of officer-involved shootings: 21 in 2018 and 44 in 2019.
The agency launched the recommended policy change Aug. 19, and documentation is now required of officers when they point a firearm in the direction of a person. The policy specifies drawing a weapon or displaying a firearm at the “low ready” doesn’t necessitate documentation.
Police in Tucson, Arizona, have required comprehensive reporting for a number of years, and a spokesman for the department said collecting the data yields an unexpected benefit.
Before the policy was implemented, officers were apprehensive about the change and additional paperwork. Tucson Police also document when they point a Taser in the direction of a person.
Although the number of instances documented can seem disconcerting, the spokesman said, the data inversely show how many times officers drew their weapons but did not fire.
Police in New Orleans have been under a federal consent decree since 2013 that requires comprehensive reporting, among other policy changes.
The agency entered into the consent decree, which was the nation’s most expansive at the time, after the U.S. Department of Justice investigated an alleged pattern of civil rights violations and other misconduct.
NOPD had zero officer-involved shootings in 2018, but six in the first half of this year prompted agency officials to release a statement ensuring the public that officers “were left with no alternative” than to shoot in each of the scenarios, nola.com reported.
In the statement, NOPD Superintendent Shaun Ferguson said the department has improved its use-of-force strategies under the consent decree, but not every situation requiring lethal force can be avoided.
“It is unfortunate that the nature of our work sometimes forces a confrontation with those intent on harming others,” Ferguson said.
Tiffany Crutcher had her Mamie Till moment.
It came as she was standing at a lectern, inside the Council Chambers of Tulsa’s City Hall, ready to address nine councilors and the mayor during a public meeting on the 2018 Equality Indicators report.
In the March 13 meeting, Crutcher held brown paper bags containing Terence Crutcher’s personal belongings — some still bloodstained from the day he was shot dead by former Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby in 2016 — and pleaded with city leaders to “figure out why this happened” to her brother.
She wanted to remind the public of the finality and impact of her brother’s death.
“I wanted to hold that up and put that in their faces to show them that this is all we had,” she said of the bagged belongings.
Crutcher likened the act to when Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie, insisted that the casket holding her 14-year-old son’s body remain open to display the mortal wounds he sustained when he was killed in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of flirting with a white woman.
In the 36 months since Terence Crutcher was killed near 36th Street North and Lewis Avenue, Tiffany Crutcher has been active in fighting for reform within the Tulsa Police Department. She helped form the Terence Crutcher Foundation to change the narrative about black men and support others who’ve been affected by police violence.
During this period, she’s also challenged Mayor G.T. Bynum to consider a broader, more complex, perspective on race and policing. Crutcher, who has routinely flown from her Montgomery, Alabama, home to Tulsa to attend court hearings, public meetings and engage in community service work, has even taken her battle all the way to Capitol Hill to discuss the state of policing in America and push for nationwide reform.
“Well, I will say this, I’ve sacrificed a lot, and somebody told me earlier that I should get a private jet,” she said. “But that’s what I decided to do because I knew that this movement needed me, and I knew that I needed to be on the ground in Tulsa.”
The Tulsa World conducted an interview with Crutcher ahead of the Sept. 16 three-year anniversary of her brother’s death. She described the relentless pursuit of justice and shared her thoughts on how activism has changed her life.
What aspects of your life are different today than three years ago?
Well, every day it’s all about getting up and chopping down this systemic oppression. I really don’t go on vacation or hang out with girlfriends because it’s one thing after the other, one battle after the other. And you see things differently when you’ve actually been affected by racism and hatred and when you’ve been traumatized. It’s almost like we don’t get to take a break. And so life is different for me, because I’ve decided to dedicate my entire life to this movement. And it takes a lot of love to want to do this.
A lot of people can’t relate to giving up a part of their life to fight for something as big and as important as you have. What’s that like to dedicate your entire life to this cause?
It was just something that I was thrust into and that I knew it was necessary. And I look back at a lot of my ancestors and a lot of the giants during the civil rights movement (who) just dedicated their lives and said that “We won’t take things for what they are. We’re going to fight and we’re going to keep moving no matter what.” Reflecting back on those giants keeps me going another day.
Was there any period in the past three years when you thought, “This is too hard?”
We’re human, and it does get hard. It’s a daily process to keep the faith when you’re fighting for equality and humanity and you get the opposition that you get. You see things in the news or statements from city councilors — people who are elected to serve and protect — saying that marginalized people are responsible for their oppression. When you hear disgusting things like that, it gets hard. You have people from south Tulsa, from west Tulsa, from east Tulsa, from different ideologies coming together saying, “Hey, the most impacted, marginalized communities deserve better.” That helps me when I get weary.
Previously you’ve said you were hesitant to get into activism. What was the concern?
I would just simply say fear. I know there have been a lot of activists who have died for speaking out. A lot of the Ferguson, Missouri, activists, several of them, they’ve died. And so fear was probably one of the main reservations or things that caused me to hesitate. But I realized that I just had to jump in, step out on faith and just trust God.
What do people who criticize you fail to understand about the work you do?
I’m going to be honest; I never read the comments from critics because I know non-doers are most often critics. And so my success and my ability to keep going has been my capacity to outlast my critics. Mental toughness has been something that I work on daily. If I didn’t work on my mental toughness, then those comments, those critics, are going to stop me from trying to effect change. And so to those critics I say I realized that this isn’t about me. It isn’t just about Terence. It isn’t just about the Crutcher family. It’s about future generations and making sure that the Terence Crutchers who are yet to be born can live in a city free from racially biased policing and systemic oppression.
During this journey into activism, what have you learned about the legal system and what have you learned about yourself?
I’ve learned that racism permeates throughout this entire system. I’ve learned that this legal system was never really designed for black people. I’ve learned how to navigate through this system, which is unfortunate that we have to do it, because if people were just fair, we wouldn’t even be here. I’ve also learned that because I have the title of Dr. Tiffany Crutcher that I’m treated a little bit better than maybe someone who didn’t go to college. And I don’t think that’s right. And that’s why I’ve made an effort to make sure I get to the communities that I’m fighting for. That I get out there and go to those areas and talk to the people who are impacted the most.
How do you feel about Betty Shelby since the incident?
I feel that it is unfortunate that someone who takes the oath and swears to serve and protect the community can kill a man and not show any remorse. I think it is really sad that she can go around teaching classes to other cops and become an expert because she killed a black man. I think it’s really sad that you can kill a man and say, “He made me do it, and he’s responsible for his own death.” And so to capitalize off of killing my brother is simply disgusting.
Have you forgiven her? Will you forgive her?
My faith teaches me that it’s OK. But please know forgiveness doesn’t excuse the crime.
How do you want your brother to be remembered as this movement continues?
I want for my brother to be remembered as a human.
Editor's note: This story has been edited to include a statement from the Comanche chairman that was released three days after publication.
The leaders of the Osage and Comanche nations appeared to be singing a different tune about gaming compacts in communications with previous governor Mary Fallin’s office.
Public records obtained through the Oklahoma Open Records Act show Osage Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear and Comanche Chairman William Nelson wrote to Fallin in November 2016 and February 2017, respectively, seeking negotiations for new gaming compacts between the State of Oklahoma and tribal governments.
In their letters, the tribal leaders said current gaming compacts expire at the end of 2019, which is a different position than they have taken in an ongoing dispute with current Gov. Kevin Stitt.
The current issue arose when Stitt announced this summer that he believes the compacts expire on Jan. 1, 2020, and that “exclusivity” fees paid by the tribes should be raised. Nearly three dozen tribes, including the Osage and Comanche, signed a resolution in late August stating they believe that the gaming compacts with the state, in place for 15 years, automatically renew, and called on Stitt to acknowledge as much as a “necessary step” before they would renegotiate terms.
But two to three years ago, it was the Osage and Comanche leaders seeking renegotiations of the gaming compacts they both called “dated.”
“As you know, the current gaming compacts expire at the end of 2019,” Standing Bear wrote to Fallin on Nov. 15, 2016. “This compact has historically been a great benefit to both the State and Tribal governments. However, the current compact is dated and is not suitable for the current and future business environment of gaming in Oklahoma. I believe it is time to initiate negotiations to jointly endeavor to create a new compact document that will move our respective governments forward for the next decade and beyond.”
And Nelson wrote this to Fallin on Feb. 6, 2017: “As you know, the current gaming compacts expire at the end of 2019. This time period is only (22) months away. ... Logic tells us the current compact is dated and is not conducive for current and future business environments of gaming in Oklahoma. I believe it’s time to initiate negotiations to create a new compact document that will move our respective governments forward for years to come. It’s the hope of the Comanche nation that negotiations can be established and we both collectively come to a mutual agreement that benefits all of our citizens.”
The leaders of both tribes were asked to comment on the apparent change in position.
Speaking on behalf of Osage Chief Standing Bear, Tulsa attorney Dean Luthey said the current gaming compacts include a provision for automatic renewal on Jan. 1, 2020, which the Osage Nation believes will be met so that the current compacts won’t actually expire.
“If certain circumstances or conditions exist, there is automatic renewal. The continuing licensing of certain horsetracks to provide electronic gaming ... They’ve (the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission) issued licenses and regulations for that type of activity. That is the state action that satisfies the renewal conditions,” Luthey said.
Asked to clarify further, Luthey said the automatic renewal of the tribal gaming compacts hinges on the final approval of renewed electronic gaming licenses for certain horsetracks by the state Horse Racing Commission.
“There are existing licenses (for electronic gaming at those horsetracks) in place. We expect renewal licenses to be delivered and in place effective the first of the year,” Luthey said. “We expect those licenses to be renewed given the most recent action by the horse racing commission. If there is not, the compact automatic renewal condition appears to not be operative.”
Nelson, chairman of the Comanche Business Committee, said: "The Comanche Nation’s 2017 letter requesting good-faith negotiations should not be conflated as any sort of agreement with the State’s incorrect legal position that the compacts do not automatically renew at the end of the year. In fact, the Nation unequivocally believes the compacts automatically renew at the end of the year. ...
"Any future negotiations between the Governor and tribes ought to be conducted through good-faith government-to-government negotiations, and not saber rattling and legal wrangling through legal threats and adversarial processes,” the Comanche official wrote in a statement.
Public records reveal only the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, which hasn’t had a gaming facility since 2013, has agreed with Stitt’s position that the current gaming compacts expire at the end of 2019. That message came in a letter dated Aug. 19 from Klint Cowan, attorney general of the Keetoowah Band. Stitt’s office was asked to comment on the apparent contradiction in positions by the Osage and Comanche leaders, but instead only responded to the governor’s current outlook on the overall issue of renegotiating.
Stitt’s communications director, Baylee Lakey, told the Tulsa World, “The governor appreciates the ongoing dialogue with various Oklahoma tribes and is hopeful that we can come to an agreement on the compacts that is a win-win for both the tribes and all four million Oklahomans.”
Staff writer Barbara Hoberock contributed to this report
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma's attorney general has agreed to pay a Michigan law firm up to $250,000 to help represent the state in negotiations with Oklahoma-based Native American tribes over compacts that allow gambling.