“Oh, I shot him. I’m sorry,” the volunteer deputy said as Eric Harris, an unarmed black man caught in a sting operation, lay dying on the pavement.
The video of Harris’ fatal shooting in April 2015 thrust the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office into the national spotlight and was one of several high-profile police shootings in 2015 that touched off Black Lives Matter protests.
Bob Bates, a pay-to-play cop who donated to the department, claimed he accidentally fired his gun instead of his Taser when he killed Harris. In the footage, deputies tackle Harris to the pavement after he allegedly tried to sell a gun to an undercover officer. Bates shoots the 44-year-old as he’s being handcuffed.
“He shot me! He shot me, man. Oh, my God. I’m losing my breath,” Harris is heard saying in the footage, which was captured on the officers’ sunglasses cameras. One of the full-time deputies replies, “Fuck your breath.”
How Bates, then a 73-year-old insurance executive, was approved to participate in a felony bust was puzzling. The Daily Beast soon learned a former wrestler and Tulsa deputy, who was once jailed for murder, had signed off on Bates’ reportedly falsified training records. And that former Sheriff Stanley Glanz was Bates’ fishing buddy and enjoyed cruises with the millionaire.
The incident was only the beginning of The Daily Beast’s exploration of inequality in the Tulsa justice system, and its tragic cast of characters.
Glanz was in the hot seat last year during the wrongful-death trial of Elliott Williams, a black Army vet who in 2011 spent his final days paralyzed from a broken neck on the floor of a Tulsa County jail, begging for help. Jailers believed Williams was faking his paralysis and put him in a video-monitored cell to catch him moving. (As The Daily Beast reported, Williams wasn’t the only inmate to die because of an alleged lack of medical care.)
The testimony focused on accusations of racist procedures within Glanz’s agency, including jail staff referring to black employees as “n*gronoids” and marking an “N” next to workers’ names in one 2006 memo, along with an “M” or “F” for gender.
A jury awarded Williams’ estate $10 million.
But the injustices of Tulsa policing go deeper and span decades.
In 1994, when they were both 17 years old, De’Marchoe Carpenter and Malcolm Scott were arrested in connection to a drive-by shooting. They would spend two decades behind bars, or their entire adult lives, for a murder they never committed. And they were convicted largely on testimony from two eyewitnesses, who would later recant.
Over the years, Scott and Carpenter lost their appeals and were denied parole, but they never gave up hope.
A death-row confession from an acquaintance—Michael Wilson, who was in prison for another murder—led to a judge tossing the pair’s convictions.
Last summer, the men filed a lawsuit against the city of Tulsa and former detectives with the Tulsa Police Department, claiming investigators engaged in a pattern of coercing witnesses, victims and suspects into giving false statements—which led to the wrongful convictions of multiple people.
“The rise in gang violence and the pressure to increase conviction rates forced changes in the conduct of prosecutors and police alike,” their complaint said. “And this led to cutting corners and an attitude of get the ‘bad guy’ by any means necessary.”
The case is pending.
Meanwhile, Eric Harris’ family settled its own suit with Tulsa County for $6 million in March. About five months before, ex-deputy Bob Bates, who’d been convicted of second-degree manslaughter in Harris’ death, scored an early release from prison.
About a year and a half after Harris’ death, another Tulsa police encounter was under scrutiny. Terence Crutcher, a father of four, was fatally blasted by officer Betty Shelby in September 2016 as he stood near his SUV, which was stalled in the middle of the road. His hands were in the air, and police would later say he had PCP in his system.
“Time for a Taser, I think,” said a cop in a helicopter hovering above the scene, which included several squad cars. According to the chopper’s video, the officer added, “That looks like a bad dude, too. Probably on something.”
Shelby said she fired her weapon because she feared for her life. Crutcher appeared to reach into the window of his driver’s side door, she claimed.
In May 2017, Shelby was acquitted of manslaughter. Shelby, now a deputy for the Rogers County Sheriff’s Office, was back in the headlines last month after it was revealed she’s teaching a class called “Surviving the Aftermath of a Critical Incident” at the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office. The course covers “many of the legal, financial, physical, and emotional challenges” an officer may encounter after shooting someone.
After the verdict, Crutcher’s sister Tiffany told reporters that cops walked past her dying brother after he was shot to check on Shelby.
“The last few breaths of my brother’s life, he laid there alone. Nobody held his hand. Nobody said, ‘Terence, are you OK?’” Tiffany said. “He had to lay there alone.”
Crutcher’s family is suing the city over his death. Whether they find justice—or whether Crutcher will be one more life destroyed, without repercussions, in Tulsa—remains to be seen.