Betty Shelby joins a long (and growing) list of white police officers who have killed unarmed black men in America and have gotten away with it. On May 18, 2017, she was acquitted of shooting and killing Terence Crutcher, a forty-year-old father of four, on September 16, 2016, after his car broke down in Tusla, Oklahoma. Contrary to Shelby stating she fired her weapon because she was in fear for her life, the police video taken from a dashboard camera and police helicopter proved otherwise. Crutcher was unarmed with his hands above his head when Shelby shot and killed him. Shelby also said she believed Crutcher was going to get a gun from his car, but police officers did not find a gun when they later searched his car.
It took the jury—which comprised of eight women and four men, including three African-Americans—nine hours to reach a not-guilty verdict. According to Time, “at least four of the twelve jurors were crying as they left the courtroom and they did not look at either the family of Crutcher or Shelby.”
After the trial, Crutcher’s family’s pastor, Pastor Ray Owens said, “We didn’t witness justice on the fourth ﬂoor of the courthouse, we witnessed injustice.”
Hours later, in an anonymous interview with The Frontier, one of the twelve jurors admitted to finding Shelby not guilty because he was tired and hungry.
White police officers using the “I feared for my life” excuse to justify their killing of black men and women is not new. Darren Wilson used the same rhetoric when defending his shooting of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Michael Slager also used it to justify his killing of Walter Scott in 2015, even though Scott was running away from Slager when he was shot.
Betty Shelby, Darren Wilson, and Michael Slager’s reasons for killing unarmed Black men falls back on American society viewing black men as more dangerous and kong-like. Their excuses rely on age-old stereotypes about the physique of black men as physically larger and stronger than their fellow white men.
What makes Betty Shelby’s case so terrifying isn’t the fact she feared for her life in the presence of an unarmed black man (even though she had four armed officers with her as backup), or the fact she lied about what happened…her actions are reminiscent of cases where black men have been killed because of the irrational fear white women have of them.
In Tusla, 1921, a nineteen-year-old black man named Dick Rowland tripped whilst entering an elevator and fell on a seventeen-year-old white girl named Sarah Page. She screamed and drew the attention of onlookers who cried ‘rape’. Rowland was jailed and the local newspaper ran a story with about the incident with the headline, “Nab Negro for Attacking Girl in Elevator”. Before long, white mobs descended on the Black neighbourhood to carry out their revenge. In the space of two days, over 800 black residents suffered grievous injuries and 39 black men and women were killed. Page never tried protesting Rowland’s innocence, she remained silent.
In 1955, fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was abducted and murdered in Money, Mississippi, after he was accused of sexually harassing Carolyn Bryant, a white woman working at a grocery store. Byrant’s husband Roy, and his half-brother kidnapped Till, beat him, and shot him in the head. Even though they were tried for Till’s murder, they were acquitted by an all-white, male jury. Earlier this year, on the 27th of January, 62 years after Till’s murder, Bryant spoke to Timothy B, Tyson, a University professor, and admitted she lied about Tilly’s sexual harassment.
Before her trial, Shelby appeared in an interview with 60 Minutes where she complained that she felt as if she had a “lynch mob […] after her.” Her comments serve as a slap in the face of hundreds of black men and women who were tortured and hung from trees as entertainment for white families to watch and eat boxed lunches. Her comments, like her actions, show her ignorance to the black bodies who for so long have served as nothing but punching bags for white rage.
White women are not invisible bodies when it comes to black oppression, they partake in it and have been doing so for centuries. Still, it does not stop certain pockets of white Americans or white feminists from trying to excuse Shelby’s actions. White conservative Americans in particular, continue to sing praises to Shelby for “taking a bad person off the streets” because Crutcher had a history of drug use. Like her victim, Shelby too has a long history of drug use and before she shot Crutcher, she had two excessive force complaints made against her.
White feminists, on the other hand, were quick to complain and cry “sexism” when Shelby was charged six days after shooting Crutcher because it was messed up that the first cop to be charged with killing an unarmed black man was a white woman”. Syreeta Neal from The Establishment was quick to end the argument, writing: “Betty Shelby is not the first police officer to be charged in the killing of an unarmed Black person. […] The fact that a white woman who killed an unarmed man in cold blood is being held accountable for her actions is not sexist and it’s not oppressive. It’s fair. That’s literally all it is. And let’s be real here: The chances of these charges sticking are slim to none.”
Unfortunately, she was right. Shelby was able to walk away with murder. On Twitter, Shaun King wrote: “They ask us to trust the system, to be patient, meek, and mild and then the system betrays us, fails to hold anyone accountable.”
Even though Shelby has been free for less than a week, the Tulsa police are evaluating her status to see if she can resume her job as a police officer. On Thursday, Tusla Police Chief, Chuck Jordan said, “We know we’ve had failings […]. We understand that, and are committed absolutely to making a better relationship where we ensure trust and ensure cooperation in our community.” Jordan’s empty words and empty rhetoric are not going to bring back Terence Crutcher. Furthermore, Crutcher’s family believes Shelby should not be reinstated as a police officer.
The streets will be no safer for black men with Shelby wearing a police badge.
The truth is even though Betty Shelby’s white woman fear and privilege may have won her freedom in a white supremacist system that violates black bodies and steals black lives, she will always be the white woman who pulled the trigger and murdered an unarmed black man in what should have just been a routine traffic matter.