“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.” – James Baldwin
America’s white supremacy and state sponsored police brutality has killed us without consequence once again. In Oklahoma, a predominantly white jury acquitted white police officer Betty Shelby of first degree manslaughter in the death of Terence Crutcher. This is another case where video footage is available for the world to see the death of an unarmed black man with his hands raised in the air in compliance and purposely trying to avoid confrontation with police.
In those moments leading up to Terence Crutcher’s death, officer Shelby’s didn’t see his humanity. She wasn’t thinking about his family and friends. She didn’t care to resolve the situation peacefully. And she damn sure wasn’t thinking about proper procedure and protocol. Officer Shelby was operating on her unjustified fear in what was an unthreatening situation. Officer Shelby bears the burden of her own sickening thoughts and images she conjured up before murdering Crutcher. The police officer chose to impulsively kill instead of using discretion, de-escalation and her oath to protect and serve American citizens. The police officer’s actions to pump bullets into Terence Crutcher’s black skin was an act of homicide, plain and simple. Betty Shelby took a man’s life unnecessarily. Reports indicate fellow police officers called it “a bad shoot” and advised Shelby not to say anything after she killed Mr. Crutcher. They all knew, instinctively, once the process played out, she would get away with murder.
The brave prosecutor Stephen Kunzweiler did initially charge officer Betty Shelby with first degree manslaughter, but she was immediately released on $50,000 bond, never saw any jail time and had the luxury of being on paid leave. Before the trial started, Shelby’s defense team began to show increasing confidence in her ability to be found not guilty and went on a public relations campaign by putting Shelby on 60 minutes. It was a clear attempt to influence potential jurors and public opinion. The interview highlighted Shelby’s irrationality, prejudices and assumed threat of Mr. Crutcher. And her one-sided account attempted to defy the clarity of the evidence.
During the trial, officer Shelby had her white skin and the badge going for her because without it, the video showing her killing the unarmed Terence Crutcher, would result in a conviction. With the video showing otherwise, officer Shelby had the audacity to utter the following words about Mr. Crutcher as the reason behind shooting him, “I feared for my life. I did everything I could to stop this,” she claimed. “Crutcher’s death is his fault.” No, she did not do everything to stop this and his death was her fault. Betty Shelby had fellow police officers next to her and Mr. Crutcher did nothing that put any of their lives at risk. They tried to make the toxicology report the reason for justifying homicide.
Again, the video showed the man walking back to his jeep, avoiding confrontation and having his arms up in the air signifying he is not a threat.
What mattered at the end of this trial was Betty Shelby’s white skin and the badge. The jurors deliberated for a paltry nine hours before coming back with a verdict of not guilty. Even though they witnessed murder and had a chance to give justice, they chose injustice. The jurors chose to be accomplices in a corrupt, unfair system toward black humanity. It was reported that some jurors cried. It is unclear as to the meaning behind the tears, but one thing is clear, officer Shelby was able to walk out of the courtroom a free woman. And recent reports indicate she is back to active duty.
Officer Shelby’s self-created fear killed Terence Crutcher and the jurors lack of courage told Shelby it’s okay not to change who you are and confront what you’ve done. Betty Shelby gets to go home to a white community that consoles the ‘ordeal’ of experiencing a trial and going through ‘such a difficult time.’ Officer Shelby gets the congratulations of a police union. Corrupt police officers take note that brutality resulting in black death continues to bring legal exoneration. Terence Crutcher’s family continues to weep in anger about a loved one’s videotaped death on a highway for no good reason. Terence Crutcher’s adult family members has to talk to their sons, daughters, nieces and nephews about why their dad, uncle and brother did not receive justice.
Color coded verdicts that reward the guilty delegitimize the criminal justice system, fosters disunity and mistrust. The actions committed by officer Shelby was fueled by her own fear, inhumanity and abuse of power. Until we can all agree on that, unaccountable police brutality will continue to corrode the fabric of this nation.
Writer, trained Social Worker and Mental Health Therapist. Husband, father and anti-racist at my core.