TULSA — Officer Betty Jo Shelby was arraigned Friday morning on first-degree manslaughter charges here for the death of Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man who, police video showed, was holding his hands in the air shortly before he was shot in the chest next to his vehicle two weeks ago.
The 42-year-old officer, who pleaded not guilty, was shielded by a wall of Tulsa police officers as she left the courtroom.
Shelby became “emotionally involved to the point where she overreacted” and shot Crutcher, who was not obeying her commands, according to a police affidavit.
Friends who served with “Betty Jo” in two Tulsa law enforcement agencies since 2007 say this is the last place they expected her to be: in the middle of a national story focused on policing and race.
Her attorney described Shelby, as “extremely soft-spoken” and not imposing by any stretch. (Court records state she is 5-foot-5.)
“If you sat down and had lunch with her and then you had to say, ‘Okay, guess what she is?’ I would guess a fourth or fifth grade schoolteacher, not a police officer,” attorney Scott Wood said.
Dramatic videos from a police helicopter and a dashboard camera show the officer leveling her Glock at the towering man with his hands up walking slowly away from her. Crutcher, 40 and a father of four, falls to the ground next to his SUV and blood begins to soak his white T-shirt. Shelby’s shrill voice over the dispatch radio pierces the silence: “Shots fired!”
Instead of checking Crutcher to see whether he survives the .40-caliber bullet through his chest wall, Shelby walks slowly back to the rear of a patrol car, falling to her knees while another officer tries to comfort her.
“That’s Betty down,” the pilot says to the officer riding with him. “We need to go back, man, if you need to.”
Shelby’s husband, a 55-year-old Iraq War veteran, is a member of the department’s helicopter crew.
“No, I’m all right,” David Shelby responds. “Big girl, man. Got my job to do, too.”
The videos prompted outrage here. Hundreds of people turned out in Tulsa’s Greenwood district — where the deadly 1921 race riot occurred — for a rally and march featuring the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Fellow officers have rallied to Shelby’s side, starting a defense fund, a Facebook page and holding two rallies.
Reached at her mother’s home last weekend, Shelby seemed remarkably calm and courteous for a woman facing nationwide scrutiny, the loss of her job and a prison sentence of four years to life. She spoke briefly with The Washington Post about the support from her fellow officers, saying, “I’ve felt the love and it’s wonderful.”
She is the second Tulsa law enforcement officer charged with an on-duty shooting in less than two years. The other officer, volunteer Tulsa County Sheriff’s reserve deputy Robert Bates, was convicted of second-degree manslaughter in the death of Eric Harris.
Bates, a wealthy friend of the sheriff’s, was allowed to serve with an undercover drug task force when he shot Harris during a gun sting April 2, 2015. Bates claimed he meant to use his Taser instead, and the fallout over the shooting ended in the sheriff’s indictment and resignation.
In both cases — Bates’s and Shelby’s — public pressure to charge the officers was intense, fueled by national media attention, marches and angry social media posts with the requisite hashtags.
Anger over Bates’s case was magnified by officers’ actions after Harris was shot and the role of “pay-to-play” policing. The video of Crutcher’s hands up before he was shot sparked instant condemnation throughout the city, state and country.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler, a 27-year veteran prosecutor elected in 2014, filed charges against both law enforcement officers. Though charging officers for on-duty shootings is highly unusual, Kunzweiler rejects any explanation “beyond the simple truth.”
“When the facts demonstrate a violation of the law,” he said, “it’s my duty to uphold those laws. It’s my job and it is what I am required to do.”
Fatal police shootings by the Tulsa Police Department are relatively rare. In the past decade, officers have killed a total of 24 people — none last year and four so far this year.
Of those killed by Tulsa police, 29 percent were black, according to the Tulsa World; African Americans make up about 8 percent of the city’s population.
Tulsa does have a history of federal intervention surrounding the issue, however. The U.S. Justice Department investigated the department in 2001 to determine whether it had a pattern of racially biased policing. In 2002, the city settled a federal lawsuit by a group of black officers alleging discrimination in hiring and promotion, agreeing to collect data, install dash cams and change employment practices.
Two former law enforcement officers who worked with Shelby at the sheriff’s office — where she worked for about five years before joining the police department — described her as likable and hard-working with a tendency to panic under pressure.
“She’s not the first person I’d choose to go into battle with,” one said. Both former officers spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing criticism from fellow law enforcement officers.
Wood, her attorney, said he has heard the same description of Shelby but rejects it.
“She’s kind of been characterized as somebody who overreacted and choked. That’s not the Betty anyone else knows that’s worked with her on the police department,” he said.
Though she was already a certified law enforcement officer, Shelby had to take the same training any new officer takes.
During the 16-week academy, officers receive “de-escalation” training. Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan has emphasized the need for officers to avoid escalating an already tense situation into one that could require deadly force.
Dan Smolen, the attorney for Crutcher’s wife, Frenchel Johnson, said based on the department’s version of events, “he was de-escalating the encounter by having his hands in the air.”
Smolen called on the department this week to release more information about Crutcher’s shooting, including whether any additional video exists. He said he believes race played a role in the shooting similar to other killings of black men by white police officers across the country.
“I don’t think this woman killed Mr. Crutcher because she wanted to kill a black man,” he said. “I think she killed Mr. Crutcher because she was afraid of black men.”
Shelby took an unlikely path to the police department. She was born in Poteau, Okla., a town of about 8,000 people 130 miles southeast of Tulsa that boasts it has the “World’s Tallest Hill!”
After a stint in the Oklahoma Air National Guard’s training program, ended by a knee injury, Shelby became a teaching assistant in 2001. She left to pursue a college degree and joined the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office in 2007.
In her application letter to the sheriff’s office, she acknowledges dabbling in marijuana at parties and describes an incident in 1993 in which she struck her boyfriend’s car with a shovel during an argument. (They filed dueling protective orders against each other and then agreed to dismiss them.)
She and an ex-husband waged a two-year custody battle, and in 2002, his new wife filed a request for a protective order, claiming Shelby made harassing phone calls to their home. After Shelby gathered evidence to combat the request, “the judge saw that I was not guilty of the accusations made against me and her request for the protective order was denied.”
Betty and David Shelby have been married 16 years, and Betty Shelby has two children — ages 20 and 21 — from a previous marriage as well as one grandchild.
Her minister, Benjamin Williams, said Shelby called him after the shooting and asked whether she should stay home from church.
“She said it again this Sunday when she did come,” he said, “that she was concerned about any distraction that it would cause.”
Williams said the congregation “prayed for her and her family and the Crutcher family” during a Sunday evening service.
“We would like this to be reconciled as peacefully as possible,” he said. “. . .We want God to strengthen her.”