Betty Shelby’s Defense: Trained To Shoot Too Soon (Update)

The defense rested in the case against Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby, who shot and killed Terrence Crutcher, after calling prosecution witness Homicide Sgt. Dave Walker as its own witness. He was called to smear Crutcher, though it’s unclear how much got to the jury:

Constant objections and bench conferences didn’t allow him to say much after the defense tried to ask about Crutcher’s criminal background and outstanding warrants. Walker said the fact that Crutcher had warrants for his arrest at time of the shooting was important for his investigation into Shelby’s actions on that evening.

But that wasn’t the crux of the defense. Rather, it was Betty Shelby’s words that were offered in explanation.

Shelby told defense attorney Shannon McMurray that police training videos showed her that if suspects are allowed to reach into their vehicles, “they can pull out guns and kill you,” which is why deadly force can be warranted. “I’m told in my training that you don’t let them pull their arm back out,” Shelby said.

“If you hesitate and delay, then you die,” she said.

This is where perspectives, and law, diverge. Shelby had no information to suggest that Crutcher was engaged in any criminal activity, and certainly no suggestion that he was either violent or armed. He was a guy with a car broken down in the middle of the road. She happened upon him while responding to another call. His behavior was peculiar. But most importantly from the perspective of a cop, he just didn’t do as she commanded.

Defense attorney Shannon McMurray stated that the investigation went way to fast, that Shelby did her job and that her actions were reasonable under the circumstances. McMurray noted that Shelby, in addition to being a DRE, was a member of the dive team, was an EMT, and was a trainer for the department.

Notably, Shelby was a “DRE,” a Drug Recognition Expert. While dive team, EMT and trainer convey a sense of experience and good will, DRE conveys a belief in cop voodoo. Police may argue that it’s a totally legit course that gives them special insight that mere mortals can’t possibly comprehend. They say that about a lot of their skills, then forget all about it when cops go horribly wrong and nobody noticed.

After the shooting, Shelby said:

Why wouldn’t he listen? Why wouldn’t he follow my commands?

Officer Dean Montgomery, a member of TPD’s critical response team, said that Shelby was responding normally to a critical situation. He’s right, it is a normal response. So is crying and being upset–you’ve just shot someone, it’s emotional.

For those of us untrained in the life and death meaning of command presence, “he wouldn’t follow her commands” might not seem like a great reason to execute a human being. But that’s only because you’re not a cop and don’t have to follow the First Rule of Policing. As Montgomery testified, Shelby’s response was “normal.” Kill first.

Sure, he hadn’t threatened Shelby with violence. Sure, she had no information that he possessed a weapon or was inclined to use it. Sure, she merely stumbled upon a guy with a broken-down car, though she was a DRE, so she had magic powers to determine that he was on PCP and not, say, having a psychotic breakdown or suffering from any number of other potential ailments that would impact his cognitive functions.

I fired my gun at Mr. Crutcher because I was fearing for my life.

This may well be true, but it’s all about Betty Shelby. Shelby feared. Shelby decided that the line was crossed between killing a man and any other action she, or any of the other cops there, might have taken. She felt something. Crutcher died.

“Is Terence Crutcher’s death his fault?” Gray asked.

“Yes,” Shelby said, adding later that “if he would have only communicated with me and complied with what I asked, none of this would have happened.”

As Greg Prickett explains, it’s hard for anyone to challenge Shelby’s reason for killing if one views the world through the eyes of a cop.

It’s hard to convict a police officer for murder or manslaughter. It’s even harder when your case is crap and likely should not have been filed to begin with.

Terrence Crutcher had no gun in his car. Why he was reaching inside, or if he was reaching inside, will never be known. At the moment Betty Shelby crossed the Rubicon, she had only a black man with a broken-down car who didn’t comply with her commands. Everything else was the product of speculation and training, what might have been rather than what was, and from the cop’s perspective, what might be is good enough to kill a person.

Because cops are taught, and cops believe, that by the time they know whether there is an actual reason to kill, it might be too late and they might end up dead. To a cop, that risk is untenable. To the courts as well. That the Tulsa police officers who testified at Betty Shelby’s trial understood exactly why she shot, and why she had no choice, is because they value a cop’s life more than anyone else’s. That’s their perspective.

Update: Not guilty.

18 thoughts on “Betty Shelby’s Defense: Trained To Shoot Too Soon (Update)

  1. Rick Horowitz

    “At the moment Betty Shelby crossed the Rubicon, she had only a black man with a broken down car who didn’t comply with her commands.”

    Or it was said, right? The only video I found on this seems to say that the guy was following commands. There may be a glitch in the video, but the subtitles on one video (from the chopper) also say “And following commands,” unless I’m going blind.

    I can’t find any video that shows what’s being said on the ground.

    I hesitated whether to post this comment, as I don’t know that this changes your point. If anything, I think it enhances it. The officers have their perspective, which is a whacked-out perspective that results in too many unnecessary (and, seriously, veridically unjustifiable) deaths. And juries are too willing to give them a pass on that, thus reinforcing their holding on to the whacked-out perspective.

    In another context, you noted about a story concerning an alleged conversation that we didn’t really know if the conversation took place, and we skimmed past that.

    How do we know that here, there really were commands that he wasn’t following? Maybe I missed a recording.

    If this goes off topic (you have a sharper knife than I do), or you don’t think it adds to the conversation, feel free to consider it an email, and not post it.

    1. SHG Post author

      The allegations that he was ordered to stop, to raise hands, to not enter the car, were made. Lacking the ability to hear them for ourselves doesn’t disprove Shelby’s (and other cops’) testimony. Sure, it doesn’t prove it to our satisfaction if we’re inclined to believe they’ve fabricated a story to justify post hoc the shooting, but testimony is evidence and that’s all we’ve got.

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    1. SHG Post author

      And with that, I suspect we’re pretty much in agreement about this case.

      Police are taught to fear, and are taught that their safety trumps everyone else’s safety. As Lou Hayes, Jr. ** points out, police expect compliance and if they don’t get it, they force compliance. In the officer’s mind, non-compliance rises to the level of a threat, sometimes to a threat of deadly force.

      It doesn’t, and it doesn’t justify shooting an unarmed man for non-compliance.


  3. B. McLeod

    So, we should blame the training for making her into a hostile and paranoid killing machine. That’s some seriously bad training.

  4. Tony

    All this story does for me is to make me think that during a traffic stop or any kind of interaction with a cop, I and all citizens may need to remember “…that by the time they know whether there is an actual reason to kill, it might be too late and they might end up dead.” I’m already “afraid’ of police because the badge and uniform give them the ‘presumption of right action’ in any situation where a citizen is killed or maimed by a cop. If the system is going to work against you for any reason, why not shoot a cop who may get dangerous to you for no real reason?

    1. SHG Post author

      While your point is the obvious problem, the odds are still strongly in favor of your surviving a traffic stop. If you were to shoot, the odds are slim to none. Simplistic but foolish is rarely a good strategy.

      1. Joel

        🙁 Y’know, when I was growing up I wouldn’t have believed “the odds are still strongly in favor of your surviving a traffic stop” would ever be part of any sentence I encountered. And a perfectly rational sentence, at that.

        I’m afraid we’ve allowed this thing to get badly out of hand.

          1. Ray Lee

            Another sentence which should never have to be uttered: “Simplistic but foolish is rarely a good strategy.” Yet look at most proposed “solutions” to virtually all problems, real or perceived, in our society today. Que “different does not mean better.”

  5. Ken Mackenzie

    At what point do the reasonably scared cops become such a well known threat to the public that a jury thinks the reasonably scared citizen in fear of their life had to get in first?

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