Prayer, discernment, reformation: Tulsa case underscores nationwide concerns over police-involved killings

OKLAHOMA CITY – Intense. That’s a word to describe responses to the shooting of a Tulsa man.

The case involving Reserve Deputy Robert Charles “Bob” Bates drew wide attention. Bates, who is white, fatally shot Eric Courtney Harris, who was black, at the end of a chase during an undercover investigation of illegal gun sales. According to Bates himself and his defenders, he meant to pull out a Taser, but mistakenly grabbed his pistol and shot Harris.

State Sen. Kevin Matthews, D-Tulsa, said a few days ago, “My thoughts and prayers are with the Harris family and our community following this unfortunate tragedy. I will be meeting with local leaders including representatives of the clergy, law enforcement and the City of Tulsa to help in whatever way I can.”

Matthews, previously a member of the state House, said, he and Sen. Anastasia Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, chair of the Legislative Black Caucus, “met with the National Black Police Association … to discuss this incident.” Matthews also met with an attorney retained by the Harris family.

Harris’ family and Bates’ critics have said the reservist is a “pay-to-play” cop because of his close ties to the county sheriff and law enforcement officials. Having previously served a year with the Tulsa Police Department, Bates was designated an “advanced reserve,” in the parlance of the county.

The office of County Sheriff Stanley Glanz said after the shooting that Bates committed no crime, but made a human error. However, the Tulsa District Attorney’s office filed second-degree manslaughter charges against Bates early last week.

The Tulsa World’s Corey Jones reported the Tulsa Fire Department’s contention that after the shooting Harris was “uncooperative and combative” when firefighters tried to render aid. Dan Smolen, the Harris family attorney, said assertions by Tulsa police and fire officials that Bates committed no crime were “premature and ill-advised.”

Fire department records state Harris’ condition deteriorated as he was being transported to a hospital, leading to his death.

While apologizing in interviews, Bates has said he never intended to kill Harris. Bates assailed allegations made in a Tulsa World story on Thursday (April 16) that his training records were falsified. The World also reported Bates, who in 2012 served as chairman of the re-election campaign for Sheriff Stanley Glanz, had donated thousands of dollars worth of equipment to the police agency.

Bates has also said in television interviews he has a “piece of paper” that supports his contentions he was properly trained. The Associated Press and The World have reported separately that Bates has not responded to requests to produce documentation of his training.

Complicating the “he said, they said” scenario is the fact that one of Bates’s law-enforcement critics was himself charged with murder in a separate case.

Ryan Kiesel, executive director of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said, “We have absolutely zero confidence that Sheriff Glanz has the capacity or willingness to restore trust between his office and the people the Sheriff is elected to serve. From a ‘buy-a-badge’ program that placed a wealthy friend and donor on a violent crimes task force, leading to the brutal and senseless death of Eric Harris, to fostering a culture among his deputies that led to the barbaric and dehumanizing treatment of Mr. Harris as he lay dying on the pavement, to recent allegations that Sheriff Glanz conspired to falsify training records of wealthy reserve officers, enough is enough.”

A Kiesel, a Democrat and former member of the state House, said, “Any one of these instances on its own raises grave doubts about the Sheriff’s ability to head one of the largest law enforcement agencies in Oklahoma, but taken together, they represent an intolerable and dangerous lack of leadership. 

That is why the ACLU of Oklahoma is calling for an independent criminal investigation into these allegations and demands the immediate resignation of Sheriff Glanz.”

Kiesel appeared on national television last week, restating his contentions about the Harris shooting.

The evolving story surrounding the Tulsa incident comes as national debate continues about a series of officer-involved shootings of African-American males.

Before the Tulsa incident, in a commentary for The Washington Examiner, Noemie Emery summarized four different shooting incidents that attracted national attention.

She reflected that while some reactions to the events have been “either-or” – either racially motivated or with no evidence of racist animus – “it turned out that the four cases were all very different, with the assumed role of race in each instance ranging from low or nonexistent to shockingly high.”

While she concluded racism was not a factor in the infamous Ferguson (Missouri) or Zimmerman-Martin cases, Emery believes police misbehavior was apparent in the cases of Eric Garner (in New York) and of Walter Scott in South Carolina.

Garner died while in an illegal hold after being stopped for a minor infraction on the streets of the city.

In the South Carolina case, local officials moved quickly dismissed and prosecuted a white officer who shot a fleeing Scott in the back during what should have been a routine traffic stop. That led local civil rights and other activists to praise the steps authorities took.

Debate about these incidents will continue, as it should. Emery’s caution – that each case is unique unto itself, rather than a chapter in a scenario of police blamelessness or full culpability – is a wise one.

The violent events, with unique facts in each case, have captured attention across the political spectrum. Many libertarians and some conservatives are overtly sympathetic to the outcry from minority communities about the incidents.

State Rep. Paul Wesselhoft, R-Oklahoma City, recently posted his concerns at his “Socrates on Facebook” page. He said, “I am very concerned, actually outraged, lately that we have seen on TV too many law enforcement officers killing or beating the hell out of unarmed citizens, especially African Americans.

“Some of these people posed no physical threat to the officers. This has become a very serious abuse of authority; it angers me to no end. If we don’t want to see major riots in our country, we must immediately address this crises. And no, I am not calling for riots but if these abuses continue, along with the high unemployment, riots will come.

“Personally, I have advised my wife and son that if I should be confronted by law enforcement, I want them to film the event for my physical protection. And I support body cameras. Officers of the law are the good guys, but not the perfect guys.”

Brady Henderson, an attorney who is Kiesel’s collegue with the ACLU, said, “Eric Harris is dead, and Oklahomans’ ability to trust its law enforcement officials is severely wounded.”

Those are the words of a man of progressive leanings who is — like the conservative Wesselhoft and my philosophically eclectic self – registered with the Republican party.

Concerns we share with Sen. Matthews and many other good Democrats, not to mention the Harris family, provide more than a hint that a time for prayer and discernment — and reform of crime and punishment in America – is upon us.

NOTE: McGuigan edited “Crime and Punishment in Modern America” (University Press of America/Free Congress Foundation, 1986) and is the author of many news stories and commentaries on criminal justice issues.