Opinion: Lessons Learned in Tulsa and Charlotte

Written by Landry Harlan

Landry Harlan
BU News Service

Terrence Crutcher, a black man, was shot and killed by a Tulsa, Okla., police officer on September 16 after reportedly refusing to comply with officers’ demands. Just four days later, Keith Lamont Scott, a black man, was shot and killed by a Charlotte, N.C., police officer after reportedly refusing to comply with officers’ demands.

The following week in Tulsa, the sound of peaceful protest and prayer reverberated through the community. In Charlotte, the wails of sirens and shuffle of officers in riot gear permeated the smoke-filled air.

So, why the stark contrast?

Last Thursday, CNN published an article with the headline “Why Charlotte exploded and Tulsa prayed.” The article offered powerful visuals but little analysis. This is a shame because a closer look at what might lie behind the discrepancies could offer police, lawmakers and communities insight on how to respond when (regretfully not “if”) another black citizen is shot by police.

Let’s start with how officials responded the days after the shootings.

On September 19, three days after the shooting, the Tulsa Police Department released the disturbing dashboard and helicopter video footage of the encounter with Crutcher. In an interview with VICE News, Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan explained why the videos were released so quickly.

“I think it was important to my community, no matter how bad the footage was, that they needed to see it, see what we saw, immediately,” Jordan said. “I think no matter how disturbing it is, we’re the city’s police department and we have accountability.”

On September 24, the Charlotte Police Department released only partial dash cam and body cam footage of the shooting, just a day after a cell phone video version was posted by Scott’s wife, Rakeyia. This was only after days of mounting pressure from community leaders and protesters. Neither video can confirm whether Scott was holding a gun, a key factor in the police reports that has fueled the community’s outrage.

Scott’s family, the only ones allowed to watch the footage, were even calling for it to be released to the public.

The Charlotte Police Department would release the video only “when we believe it is a compelling reason,” Chief Kerr Putney said to reporters in the days before the video was posted. “Transparency is in the eye of the beholder. If you think I’m saying we should display a victim’s worst day for public consumption, that is not the transparency I’m speaking of.”

Accountability. Transparency.  These are the cornerstones of public trust. How else do we know that those in power are working for the good of the community? And what exactly constitutes a “compelling reason?” Are a dead black man and a community demand for the truth not compelling enough to release the footage immediately and in full?

An October 2015 analysis by The Washington Post found that less than half of the fatal police shootings captured on camera in 2015 were publicly released. In almost all cases, officers involved were allowed to view the footage before making statements.

Tulsa officers didn’t get to prepare. Truth came from the images and audio. The images, unaltered and the audio, unfiltered, tell a story no one can repudiate. Meanwhile, Charlotte officers keep trying to find the right words to placate the protesters, but offer nothing but police statements and edited footage to back up their claims.

Only with transparency can justice follow. In Tulsa, it did, swiftly.

On September 22, six days after the shooting, Tulsa district attorney Stephen Kunzweiler said in a press conference that, “A warrant had been issued for her arrest.” The “her” is the officer responsible for the fatal shooting, Betty Shelby. Shelby will be charged with first-degree manslaughter in the death of Crutcher.

According to an affidavit by a Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office investigator, Shelby reacted “unreasonably by escalating the situation from a confrontation” and become “emotionally involved” to the point she overreacted.

To their credit, the Charlotte Police Department quickly identified the officer of shot and killed Scott, Brentley Vinson and placed him on administrative leave. He has yet to be charged and the investigation is still crawling along, further widening the gap of public trust. A thorough investigation is undeniably important, but when few to no updates are provided publicly, how does the public know you’re not just stalling?

It should be noted here as well that Shelby is white and Vinson is black. Many are using Vinson’s race to dismiss claims of racial profiling. This is foolish. Institutionalized racism affects every facet of the institution, and that includes every officer.

But what about the night of? Before any information was released, why were Tulsa’s streets calm, and Charlotte’s in chaos?

Much of it can be traced to Tulsa’s scars from the 1921 race riots that left hundreds dead by the hands of a white mob, scars still raw today. This dark past clings to community leaders and reminds them that nonviolence is the best path to peace.

“We come together with a sense of shared outrage for injustice, … another unarmed African American man gunned down in the streets,” said Tulsa Metropolitan Church’s Rev. Ray Owens to 700 people in a standing room only auditorium the Wednesday after the shooting, according to The Tulsa World. “We have sought out and made our way to healthy, nonviolent ways to express our righteous rage.

There are still fractures in the community makeup, especially along geographic lines, but Tulsa continues to look to its past to heal the present and address the future. Charlotte has a history of segregation and racial tension as well, but it had not reached its breaking point until Scott’s death. It might have just been the last straw after years of police resentment.

David Graham of The Atlantic brings up September of 2013, when Jonathan Ferrell, a black man, was shot by a white officer 10 times, but the case resulted in a hung jury.

He goes on to mention a review by the Charlotte Observer that found that most officers were never disciplined, the city choosing instead to pay out $3.4 million in settlements over the last decade in five cases of shootings.

Now Chief Putney is calling out to the “voiceless majority” to “change the narrative”, claiming that the story has been portrayed incorrectly, according to CNN.

The Charlotte black community has just heard this one too many times. Fighting injustice with violence and rioting solves nothing, but it shouldn’t be so surprising that many felt it was the only way for their voices to be heard this time.

I urge the police departments and public officials all over the country to study Tulsa and Charlotte. I urge them to be transparent and let the community see and hear all the footage that is available, so justice can come swiftly. I urge them to trust that the community can handle the details and respond in nonviolence. And I urge them to remember the past to pave the way for a more peaceful future, free of institutional racism and black men gunned down in the streets by those who have sworn to serve them.

That day can’t come soon enough.

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