Police shooting discussion misses the point

Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby was recently found not guilty of a crime in the shooting death of Terence Crutcher. As with many police shootings featuring video of a white officer and a black citizen, there has been a great deal of public discourse about the event. As usual, the majority of people try to understand what happened and why, only to be drowned out by the loud voices of two camps, those who think everything police do is wrong and those who think the police should be shooting a lot more people. Naturally, the media is less interested in thoughtful consideration of the issues and facts, focusing instead on extreme viewpoints that tend to generate emotional reactions(and ratings).

Mr. Crutcher had a lengthy criminal record, including several incidents that resulted in officers using force against him. At the time of his death he did have PCP in his system, a hallucinogenic drug that can cause individuals to be extraordinarily resistant to police. None of that, by itself, justifies shooting him.

Officer Shelby has had some domestic issues in her past involving more than one relationship. Her defense at trial made much of her feelings of fear during the incident where Mr. Crutcher was shot, a fact that led jurors to believe that she wasn’t cut out to be a patrol officer. None of that, by itself, justifies a guilty verdict.

A jury of twelve, including two black women, found Shelby not guilty of a crime. This doesn’t mean that they felt that Crutcher deserved to die, or that they approved of Shelby’s performance of her duties. To quote on juror, “I don’t think she’s a bad person,” he said. “She just shouldn’t be a cop.” It is certainly tragic for Mr. Crutcher’s loved ones that he was killed, but it serves justice no better to convict a police officer out of a demand for vengeance than it does to convict anyone else out of lust for retribution.

At the end of the day, we ask fallible human beings to perform the task of being first responders to everything from armed robbery to car accidents to domestic disputes. We send them to be the first on the scene when someone has a mental health crisis. We have our police record incidents so that we may prosecute lawbreakers. We want them to prevent crime, make the neighbors turn down their music, take our reports, and back us up when we feel we are right in disputes, but we want them to leave us alone when we drive a little too fast or yell a little too loudly at our spouse. We want them to persecute drug users, prostitutes and street people, and at the same time be an example of fairness, tolerance, and justice. We want law enforcement to have a high degree of training but feel we can judge their every movement. And never do we remember that the politicians we elect are the ones telling police officers what to do.

We would do well to rethink our approach to law enforcement issues. Instead of granting an automatic seal of approval or having a knee-jerk negative reaction to every police action, rather than focus on the involved individuals so that we may personify and lionize or demonize them, we would be better served to more carefully consider the policies we have our police officers follow and enforce. Like so many other public issues, often the best thing we can do when the news starts showing the video is turn off the TV and go read a variety of differing views instead.