Oklahoma cop who avoided prison for killing unarmed man now faces wrongful death suit

Terence Crutcher’s family are seeking changes to police policy, not just money.

From left: Terence Crutcher’s mother Leanna, father Joey, and sister Tiffany, with attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons following the acquittal of their son’s killer in May. CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File
From left: Terence Crutcher’s mother Leanna, father Joey, and sister Tiffany, with attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons following the acquittal of their son’s killer in May. CREDIT: AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File

Acquitted of manslaughter and back on desk duty, Tulsa, Oklahoma Police Officer Betty Jo Shelby now faces a civil suit from the family of the unarmed man she killed last fall.

Terence Crutcher was empty-handed next to his vehicle when Shelby fired a single shot that killed him. Police cameras captured the final moments of the 40-year-old’s life from multiple angles, showing he had been walking slowly with his hands high above his head during the moments before the killing.

A jury decided last month that it could not convict Shelby of manslaughter in the case despite the video evidence. Defense attorneys persuaded jurors that Crutcher had made a move toward the open driver’s-side window of his stationary vehicle, and that Shelby’s decision in that moment to kill him was justified by what she perceived to be a reach for a gun that did not exist.

In a public letter after the trial, however, jurors indicated they believed Shelby’s actions were rash and Crutcher’s death was avoidable — just that none of what transpired satisfied the technicalities of the law they’d been asked to apply to the officer.

The initial wrongful-death filing “contends Shelby had ‘ample opportunity to take ballistic cover’” with fellow officers close by, according to the Tulsa World.

But Crutcher’s surviving family members also appear ready to relitigate both the video footage and Shelby’s decision to shoot, this time in civil court.

Crutcher family lawyers argue the videos do not show “furtive, sudden, rapid, or aggressive movements” that would justify a “split-second decision” to fire — suggesting a civil jury will be asked to evaluate the same key frames of video and questions of officer training and department policy which were key to her criminal trial.

The civil suit also seems to reach further into the inner workings of Tulsa law enforcement institutions, laying blame on the very police policies and practices which helped keep Shelby out of prison.

“The dangers police officers generally face also do not provide a license to police officers to ‘shoot first and ask questions later,’ without properly evaluating the need for such force,” the family’s lawyers wrote.

Civil courts operate by different standards. Wrongful-death cases generally set a lower burden of proof than criminal courts.

Shelby’s killing of Crutcher was unusual not so much for what happened that Friday night but for how city officials responded. Police released footage to the public within days. The local prosecutor filed manslaughter charges within a week.

The two decisions likely helped maintain calm in Tulsa — a city with an ugly race relations history — in the days and weeks following the killing. Days after Crutcher’s death in Oklahoma, police in North Carolina killed Keith Lamont Scott and then refused to release videos they said justified their officers’ actions for several days as Charlotte descended into civil unrest.

Shelby’s case was also unusual for her decision to appear on 60 Minutes in the weeks ahead of her trial, a move both criticized as a skewing of public opinion and acknowledged as tactically savvy.

Crutcher’s family are not solely seeking restitution in the case. Their petition also asks the court to order changes to how police shootings are investigated in Oklahoma.