Sections

Weather Forecast

Close

She fatally shot an unarmed black man. Now she's teaching other cops how to 'survive' such incidents.

Acquitted former Tulsa police officer, Betty Shelby, is set to teach a class on "surviving the aftermath" of officer-involved shootings on Aug. 28. Shelby shot and killed unarmed 40-year-old Terence Crutcher in 2016. Amber Ferguson — The Washington Post

She calls it "The Ferguson Effect."

Two years after she fatally shot an unarmed black man in Tulsa, Betty Jo Shelby, now a police officer in an adjacent county, is teaching a course on how to "survive such events" - legally, emotionally and physically. The course, as she explained it to a local ABC affiliate, equips officers to withstand the effect - named for the Missouri city convulsed by the 2014 shooting of a black teenager - "when a police officer is victimized by anti-police groups and tried in the court of public opinion."

Shelby, who is white, was tried last year in a criminal court in Tulsa County. She was acquitted of first-degree manslaughter in the shooting death of Terence Crutcher. But the jury questioned her "judgment as a law enforcement officer." If less lethal force had been an option, "serious consideration" must be "given to whether she be allowed to return to practicing law enforcement," said the jury foreman, in a letter the presiding member asked the court to make public to "placate" the media's desire to interview members of the jury. The Tulsa Police Department pulled her from the streets and reassigned her to a desk job, prompting Shelby to resign. "Sitting behind a desk," she explained in a statement, "is not for me."

"I did feel like my career was done," she told Tulsa World of the dispute over the 2016 shooting, which spurred protests and renewed a national debate over race and policing.

Now, a new debate is underway in Tulsa - a city scarred by the 1921 Tulsa Race Riot, a massacre in which white mobs laid waste to a prosperous black neighborhood in one of the most devastating episodes in the history of American race relations.

The debate asks: What can be learned from a police-involved shooting, and who is entitled to do that teaching?

Shelby is poised to bring her state-approved training course, "Surviving the Aftermath of a Critical Incident," to the city where her own "critical incident" unfolded. Shelby's scheduled appearance Tuesday at the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office has drawn condemnation from local activists, who argue that the former Tulsa officer should not be imparting advice to law enforcement - especially not in the community where she killed the 40-year-old motorist and father of four.

Marq Lewis, the founder of the community organizing and government watchdog group, We the People Oklahoma, said the class newly highlights the injustice of the incident, making the police officer out to be the victim when it was Crutcher who did not survive the encounter, robbing him of any capacity to describe its fallout. A protest Monday outside the county courthouse condemned Shelby's planned appearance. Signs urged, "Ban Betty."

"It's one more indication that Betty Shelby has been rewarded while Terence Crutcher's children are suffering still," Lewis said in an interview with The Washington Post. "They don't have anyone going around the state talking about their experiences."

In a statement to a local ABC affiliate, Shelby defended her qualifications to teach the course, which she said was "not about the shooting," whose details she claimed not to be covering.

"I faced many challenges that I was unprepared for such as threats to my life by activists groups to loss of pay," she said. "My class is to help others by sharing some of the skills I used to cope with the stress of my critical incident. As law enforcement we experience many critical incidents throughout our career. These tools that I share are just a few to help them cope with the stress of the critical incidents they have had or will experience."

According to a state website, the training, which is certified by the Oklahoma Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training, or CLEET, "will describe some of the challenges in dealing with the aftermath of a critical incident such as Officer Involved Shooting. Participants will be exposed to many of the legal, financial, physical, and emotional challenges which may result from a critical incident." The free course lasts four hours, including two "Mental Health Hours."

The month after she resigned from the Tulsa Police Department, Shelby was sworn in as a reserve deputy in Rogers County, northeast of Tulsa, Tulsa World reported. She maintained a limited role for several months to make room for planned speaking engagements, according to the Oklahoma newspaper, and assumed full-time patrol duty at the end of last year.

Shelby said her experience in Tulsa required her to be even more vigilant in her new assignment. "You have to be prepared for the unknown," she said. "And that sense is heightened now because I have to wonder if this person will recognize me."

An attorney for Shelby, Scott Wood, told The Post Tuesday morning that the class fills a critical hole in officer training.

"Even if it doesn't happen to everyone, every cop has a friend or workmate who's involved in an officer-involved shooting," said Wood, who was a Tulsa police officer in the 1980s and said he has been representing officers for more than 20 years. "They come away with information they can use to help - or utilize themselves."

Wood said his client received a cascade of death threats after the shooting. In February, one man received a one-year prison sentence after pleading guilty to "interstate communication with intent to injure."

Of the protests, her attorney said Shelby "knows there's a certain part of the population in Tulsa that's not ever going to accept the verdict, that's not ever going to take her as someone that is worthy of training other officers. But she believes that this is an important class to give."

Police dash-cam and helicopter video show Crutcher walking with his arms up toward his vehicle before reaching for the driver's-side window. One of the officers enlisted a stun gun, while Shelby fired her gun, striking the unarmed man in the lung, according to police. The footage doesn't provide a clear picture of the moment Shelby pulled her trigger. She said he was ignoring verbal directions.

The shooting, which unfolded in the final months of a bitter presidential election campaign, drew national attention. Addressing the incident during an event at a black church in Cleveland in September 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump said it appeared that Crutcher "did everything you're supposed to do, and he looked like a really good man."

"This young officer - I don't know what she was thinking. I don't know what she was thinking," Trump said, speaking slowly and deliberately and repeating himself for emphasis. "I'm very, very troubled by that. I'm very, very troubled by that. And we have to be very careful."

Before her criminal trial began in May of the following year, Shelby defended herself in a "60 Minutes" interview, saying, "race had nothing to do with my decision-making." She said Crutcher was intoxicated - he was found to have PCP and TCP in his system at the time of the shooting - and exhibited "zombie-like" behavior.

When the officer was acquitted, Tiffany Crutcher, the victim's sister, insisted, "Terence was not the aggressor. Betty Shelby was the aggressor."

Lewis, whose organization helped spread the word about Shelby's appearance at the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office, allowed that the officer may have useful observations based on her involvement in the shooting. But he said an instructional course was the wrong forum for those insights.

"She can give her account in a speech to someone else, maybe to a general public," he said. "But our concern is that she's speaking to law enforcement that are interacting with communities of color that look like Terence Crutcher. You can have it at an open forum. But to teach a paid class?"

A public information officer for the sheriff's office didn't respond to a request for comment Monday.

Lewis said the wounds of Crutcher's shooting are still raw in Tulsa, a city with stark racial inequalities.

Black Tulsans are nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to be unemployed than white residents, according to the 2018 Tulsa Equality Indicators report. Meanwhile, black juveniles are more than three times as likely to be arrested than white juveniles.

Lewis said the timing of Shelby's course - falling on the 65th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech - magnifies the offense.

"Not only are you doing this in Tulsa, where this egregious violence happened two years ago, but also on the 65th anniversary of Dr. King's speech."

In that address, delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, King said there was a question posed to advocates for civil rights: "When will you be satisfied?"

"We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality," the reverend answered.

---

This article was written by Isaac Stanley-Becker, a reporter for The Washington Post.