Oklahoma Has A Killer Cop Problem, Especially If You’re Black

Cops in Oklahoma kill black people at a higher rate than any state in the country

Photo Illustration: Diana Quach
Sep 20, 2016 at 5:36 PM ET

Authorities in Oklahoma released helicopter and dashcam footage on Monday that shows a white police officer fatally shooting Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man who appeared in the videos with his hands up in the air for most of the exchange he had with police. The shooting has prompted both local authorities and the Department of Justice to open investigations into the incident.

While cops killing African Americans has become an all-too familiar narrative, it’s more common in Oklahoma than it is anywhere else in the country, according to data from a police violence advocacy group.

Mapping Police Violence monitored officer-involved deaths across the country from January of 2013 until April of this year. In that time period, police in Oklahoma killed a total of 92 people, 30 of whom were black. That’s a rate of 108 people per million. Oklahoma’s rate for all races is 24 per million. The only other states that come close to Oklahoma in terms of the ratio of black people killed by police are Utah with 102 per million people and Alaska with 85, according to the data.

Of the 30 black people killed by police in Oklahoma, seven were unarmed. Charges were only filed against the officer or officers in two of those seven cases. By comparison, charges also were filed against officers who killed caucasians on two occasions, but there were 18 more white people killed by police than black people—and in one of the cases, the suspect who was killed was armed. The other was an unarmed woman whose vehicle was struck by a police cruiser.

The officer who allegedly killed the 40-year-old Crutcher is Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby, who has been on the force since 2011. It’s unclear whether she will be charged with any crimes, but Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan has promised “justice.”

“I want to assure our community, and I want to assure all of you and people across the nation who are going to be looking at this, we will achieve justice, period,” Jordan said at a press conference on Monday, as his department released video of the shooting, which he described as “very disturbing; it’s very difficult to watch.”

Shelby’s professional record is relatively clean, according to personnel files obtained by Vocativ. Prior to joining the Tulsa Police Department, she was a member of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office where she received “several commendations,” the agency’s media flack, Casey Roebuck, told Vocativ. She added that “no disciplinary action appears in [Shelby’s] file.”

What does appear in Shelby’s personnel file from the Tulsa County Police Department is sparse. In her application for the job she admitted that she has “possessed or used” illegal drugs and that an order of protection was filed against her. It’s unclear what prompted the order of protection, or when—or by whom—it was filed.

The shooting occurred on Friday night when a woman drove by Crutcher’s vehicle as it was stopped in the middle of a two-lane road near Tulsa.  “He took off running,” the woman told a 911 dispatcher, adding that she thought the vehicle might blow up and that, “I think he’s smoking something.”

The patrol car’s dashcam footage released on Monday captured Shelby with her gun drawn and pointed at Crutcher, who had his hands in the air, steps away from his vehicle. Crutcher appeared to put his hands down when he approached his SUV. He was Tasered by an officer and a single shot is heard followed by a female officer yelling “shots fired.” Crutcher then collapsed next to his vehicle. In both the helicopter and dashcam videos, the Taser attack and fatal shot was obstructed from view.

Shelby’s lawyer told the New York Times on Monday that she thought Crutcher had a weapon, and he had reached inside the car window right before he was shot. Police Chief Jordan later confirmed that Crutcher did not have a weapon. Officers in the helicopter are also under scrutiny in the shooting for describing Crutcher as a “bad dude” who “could be on something.”

“You all want to know who that big ‘bad dude’ was,” Crutcher’s sister, Tiffany Crutcher, said at a press conference on Monday. “That big ‘bad dude’ was my twin brother. That big ‘bad dude’ was a father. That big ‘bad dude’ was a son. That big ‘bad dude’ was enrolled at Tulsa Community College, just wanting to make us proud.

“That big ‘bad dude’ loved God; that big ‘bad dude’ was at church singing, with all his flaws, every week. That’s who he was.”