Terence Crutcher’s Deadly Breakdown

His SUV was stopped in the middle of a road. Terence Crutcher was a guy who needed a hand, and police, in their public safety function, should have been the nice folks who helped him out. Instead, Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby killed him.

There will be intense parsing of the video of Crutcher’s killing. At Fault Lines, former police officer and firearms instructor Greg Prickett takes apart the video and tries to understand what might have given rise to this killing. The upshot is that while there are explanations, to some limited extent, for Shelby’s shooting, they aren’t good explanations. Not good at all.

But it remains to be seen, according to Greg, whether there is anything more, as the alternative of Betty Shelby being a stone-cold killer cop is hard to fathom. And Tulsa has demonstrated its willingness to prosecute a cop, take a cop to trial and convict a cop, if the facts warrant it. They did so with Robert Bates.

But while all eyes are on the moments before the killing, as the apologists at PoliceOne blame Crutcher for not complying with commands, as if that’s a reason to execute a man, and seek out any excuse to explain why one of theirs gets to kill one who isn’t one of theirs, Terence Crutcher’s SUV wasn’t the only breakdown on the road in Tulsa in need of explanation.

The police weren’t there to provide aid and comfort to Crutcher. They were on their way to another call, and happened upon Crutcher’s SUV in the middle of the road. There were two patrol cars and a helicopter. Why a helicopter was anywhere in the area is unknown, but it’s unlikely that they dispatch an eye in the sky for a stalled car.

Wherever the cops were heading when they came upon Crutcher, whatever their call was for, was apparently not as important as his stalled SUV. Or the black man in the road with the vehicle. The cops rushing toward danger decided that this stalled SUV was more important. Call forgotten, they converged on a guy whose car had stalled.

Officer Shelby has since lawyered up, and her attorney offers his defense of her shooting.

In an interview, Officer Shelby’s lawyer, Scott Wood, said the officer had thought that Mr. Crutcher had a weapon. Mr. Wood said Mr. Crutcher had acted erratically, refused to comply with several orders, tried to put his hand in his pocket and reached inside his car window before he was shot.

The official police narrative similarly falls back to the typical jargon to justify a killing.

Chief Jordan said Officer Shelby had encountered Mr. Crutcher and his vehicle while en route to another call and requested backup because she was “not having cooperation” from him. Officer Turnbough and his partner responded to Officer Shelby’s request for backup. It was the dashboard camera in their patrol car that recorded the shooting.

And Shaun King, who sometimes has a kernel of thought* in the midst of vapid irrelevant emotionally-laden bluster, lucked upon the obvious.

This epitomizes the black experience in America. Something that should have been routine and safe, turned out to be fatal. As it turns out, Officers Betty Shelby and Tyler Turnbough were actually being dispatched for another call when they came across Crutcher’s broken down SUV. Thankfully, several cameras filmed the entire incident and eyewitnesses have come forward as well.

The officers say Crutcher approached them — and failed to obey the cops’ commands.

It should have been routine. Terence Crutcher wasn’t a bank robber, an escaped prisoner, a mass murderer. He wasn’t even a suspect in shoplifting a stick of gum. He was just a guy with a stalled car. If anything, he was a guy who could have used a little help, whether to push the SUV out of the middle of the road, to call a tow truck.

Did Crutcher refuse to obey commands? It’s the wrong question. It’s the wrong place to start, and leads one down a path that misapprehends the situation. Police are entitled to speak to people just like anyone else is entitled to speak to another person. They can stop their patrol cars, get out, say, “Hey, guy, what’s up?”  You see, Terence Crutcher was just a regular guy with a stalled car in the road in need of assistance.

Commands? Why commands? What possible basis existed for the police to issue commands? It might be argued that they could order him to get his car out of the middle of the road, had there been any hint that he stopped it there for some nefarious purpose, in the middle of a highway in the middle of nowhere. But that’s asinine. He was obviously broken down there. He was obviously not some miscreant hellbent on blocking traffic, just in case some traffic happened to appear.

Commands? He was on the good guy curve, a fellow who knew his car was broken down. A fellow who had no reason under the sun to suspect that police would show up and start issuing commands, as if he wasn’t a good guy. It makes no sense for police to command him to do anything. To raise his hands? Why would a guy with a stalled car need to raise his hands in the first place?

But Betty Shelby had her gun drawn. That’s the detail that deserves focus. What about a guy with a stalled car compelled her to draw her gun? There is no reason to have a gun drawn unless there is a potential threat. This is why cops don’t walk around with guns drawn all the time.

The post-hoc rationalization is that Crutcher could have been a threat, and that neither Shelby nor Tyler Turnbough, the officer who tased him in the split second before Shelby put the bullet into Crutcher that killed him, knew that Crutcher wasn’t a potential threat. The First Rule of Policing was invoked in anticipation of a threat, even though all circumstances suggested that he was no more than a guy with a stalled car in the road. Commands are issued to take charge of the situation, the way cops test a person’s compliance, their submission to authority.

To Terence Crutcher, he was just a regular good guy who had car troubles. To Shelby and Turnbough, he was a potential threat to their lives because they happened upon a black guy in the road, about whom they knew nothing and who did nothing whatsoever to make them feel threatened.

Two cops had a choice, in the absence of any information or reason to think there was any threat whatsoever, that this man in need of assistance could threaten their lives. From that point forward, they acted upon their assumption. They chose to protect their own lives, even though there was nothing to protect their lives from, because they chose to assume a black man was a threat.

Terence Crutcher knew he was no threat to anyone, and there was no reason why he shouldn’t do what any ordinary person with a broken down SUV would do. That’s why he’s dead.

*In a post about the killing of 12-year-old Tyre King, for whom there is no information save what came from the official police narrative, Shaun King wrote:

When I first started telling these stories, I must admit that I was terribly naive. I had no idea how complex the justice system is.

King is as dangerous to brain cells as police spokesmodels. Standing atop a big soapbox, he preaches to his choir, which adores his angst, but he grasps nothing about law and isn’t particularly concerned with facts either. And yet:

I’ve learned many lessons, but the essential one that is particularly timely today is about the initial statements police give to the local media after they kill someone.

I don’t believe them — ever. They are not based on an analysis of facts. They don’t come after an investigation. They aren’t released alongside body camera or dashcam footage. Instead, these initial statements are made by skilled men and women who have every interest in protecting their fellow officers. Consistently, these initial statements provide us with horrible details about the victim and nearly no details about the officers involved — all but convicting the victim, and freeing the cop.

It’s hard to make Shaun King look smart and right. The police do so, time after time. The only voices less credible than King’s are the cops’.

23 thoughts on “Terence Crutcher’s Deadly Breakdown

  1. Charles

    “Did Crutcher refuse to obey commands? It’s the wrong question. It’s the wrong place to start, and leads one down a path that misapprehends the situation.”

    If this is an open-book test, I’ll give it a shot:

    (1) Did Officer Shelby make a “lawful order or direction”? Okla. Stat. tit. 47, § 11-103 (“No person shall willfully fail or refuse to comply with any lawful order or direction of any police officer invested by law with authority to direct, control or regulate traffic.”).

    (2) If so, did Crutcher “fail or refuse to comply”? Id.

    (3) If so, Crutcher committed a misdemeanor. Okla. Stat. tit. 47, § 11-102 (“It is unlawful and, unless otherwise declared in this chapter with respect to particular offenses, it is a misdemeanor for any person to do any act forbidden or fail to perform any act required in this chapter.”).

    (4) The penalty for a misdemeanor is summary execution. (cite?)

    Unfortunately, my mad Westlaw skillz leave me without a citation for number 4.

    1. SHG Post author

      Go back to one and give me a fully conceived explanation for why Shelby’s interaction with Crutcher began with her giving commands. And your answer as to 2 is wrong. It’s not Id, but Ego.

      1. Charles

        Psych 101 was a long time ago, but its seems as though the “id” is what happened. The “ego” had nothing to work with because the “super-ego” wasn’t there to counteract the “id”. So I’ll stand by the citation. As for going back to one, she was, um, directing traffic. Yes, that’s it.

            1. SHG Post author

              You realize “with all due respect” is a lawyer insult, right? Of course you do.

              (Because that sounded as if I might be angry, I wrote that with a smile.)

    2. Greg Prickett

      Question 1 is the wrong question. Police are always going to claim that their directives are a “lawful order,” even when they are not. You can look at the case of Patrick Mumford, tased because he didn’t comply with a “lawful order” to produce ID – when no such order was given. Or Brandon McKean, who was stopped in freezing weather, apparently because being black with your hands in your pocket is somehow grounds for a Terry stop. Or Avi Adelman, who failed to comply with an order to stop taking photographs – in a public place, of public officials performing duties of public interest.

    3. Dave

      We’ll probably find out later that he had a warrant…. Or some reason for a cop to want to cuff him or have him comply with hands where I can see them commands… My take is that he had something come up that wasn’t good but, he should have known that. And, after being ordered to comply, you walk 30-40 feet back to your vehicle, back-up arrives, all 4-5 officers have guns out, and a taser… You continue as if there’s nothing there, compliance is ‘at will’ and if you feel like leaving – go ahead… Weird

  2. Brady Curry

    The sad truth is that in today’s USA any interaction with the police must be met with total submission and compliance to “any” orders given or threats made. One’s knowing that one hasn’t done anything to incite such a response from the police is immaterial. I know that if a cop is pointing a gun at me I am not going to move or argue my point until they have me in handcuffs (you know, for officer safety). When they finally feelz safe I will try and make my argument as to why they shouldn’t be afraid and should release me.

    It may be your right to act as if you done nothing wrong and ignore the police but it will feel like a bad choice once you’ve been shot. Being later found to have not committed any crime will look great in your obituary. You’ll be technically right but factually dead while your killer gets a paid vacation.

    Until the courts put a stop to the thought that a cops life is worth more that a citizens life this will never end. As long as they are shielded by their unions, and the courts, police have no incentive to change their “shoot first for any reason policy”.

    1. SHG Post author

      I’ve had the joy of being caught on the side of the road with car issues. Cops came, and it was all hugs, kisses and help. I had no fear of the cops. They had no fear of me. We all made it home for dinner.

      There is a distinction between me and Terence Crutcher (not to mention Corey Jones) that might explain why I’m alive.

      1. Brady Curry

        All my LEO interactions have also been safe and civil, even those where I still went to jail. But it’s the thought of that single scared cop out there, that can kill with virtually no repercussions, that makes me suck up my rights and just do as commanded until that fear is allayed.

        I’m not brave enough to guess that distinction SHG, but I have an idea.

        1. SHG Post author

          I’ve dealt with general issues of surviving an interaction with police, as reflected in your earlier comment, many times before. This post deals with a specific issue, and my reply to you sought to focus you on this case. Apparently, I was very unsuccessful.

          1. Brady Curry

            Not your fault at all. It’s totally on me.

            Mr. Crutcher and Mr. Jones lost their lives for no justifiable reason. I thank you for allowing me to realize that. We can only hope that their deaths help in bringing about changes that wind up saving other lives. I would like to think that this is the main point you want me to see. If I’m wrong then I’m hopelessly lost, an unfit student, and have much more to learn than I think I do (if that’s at all possible for me). I will now go stand in the corner and be quiet.

            1. SHG Post author

              Add this to your mix: Cops and their friends often respond to a killing with, “if he had complied, he wouldn’t be dead.” But that’s no more a guarantee of surviving a police encounter than anything else. General rules are fine, and often the best we can do, yet they continue to fail us. There are no simple answers, which we learn from every specific instance. This killing is another lesson for all of us.

  3. B. McLeod

    The single round is puzzling. Given that her weapon was already out, weapons confusion with the taser seems unlikely. I suspect this was simply an accidental discharge by a nervous officer.

    1. SHG Post author

      Greg suggested in might be a “sympathetic refex” to the other officer tasing Crutcher.

      I can see that as a possibility. Sympathetic shooting is a well-known phenomenon in the police firearms training world. It’s sometimes known as startle reflex, and it’s one of the main reasons that you’ll hear firearms instructors[2] repeatedly telling their officers to “keep your finger off of the trigger” until you consciously intend to fire a shot. Did that happen here? I don’t have a clue. Nor, for that matter, does anyone else.

      That would explain it.

  4. Mark

    “His SUV was stopped in the middle of a road. Terence Crutcher was a guy who needed a hand, and police, in their public safety function, should have been the nice folks who helped him out….his stalled SUV….To Terence Crutcher, he was just a regular good guy who had car troubles…”

    You are creating a false narrative here. AKA lying. A 9/11 caller minutes before the shooting said the SUV was *STILL RUNNING*, that Crutcher said it was “gonna blow”, and that he “was smoking something”.

    [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules.]

    1. SHG Post author

      First, if you’re going to call someone a liar, then be careful not to be wrong. This post was written and published before the release of the 911 call (or the post you linked to, which isn’t allowed here if you had bothered to read the rules). That said, it changes nothing.

      Second, Selby knew nothing about the call, so it’s irrelevant to her actions.

      Third, nothing in the call changes anything about Crutcher being a guy whose car had broken down and needed a hand. I think the caller was joking around when she said “he was smoking something.” (I get to link to posts because it’s my blog. You don’t because you’re a guest in my house and have to abide my rules.)

      Suggestion: if you want to not be taken as an asshole, don’t be an asshole.

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