Tulsa community leaders say the acquittal of a white Oklahoma police officer who killed an unarmed black man ripped open a long-festering wound.
From the mayor’s office to schools and churches, race relations have been terrible in Oklahoma’s second-largest city for well over a century.
So black community leaders on Thursday welcomed Mayor G.T. Bynum’s mention of racial disparities on the day after a jury of Tulsans found officer Betty Jo Shelby not guilty of manslaughter. Shelby fatally shot 40-year-old Terence Crutcher in the middle of a city street after observing his disabled SUV in September.
Shelby said she fired her weapon out of fear because Crutcher ignored her commands to lie down and appeared to reach inside his SUV for what she thought was a gun. But prosecutors said she overreacted, arguing that Crutcher had his hands in the air and wasn’t combative, part of which was confirmed by police video that showed Crutcher walking away from Shelby with his hands above his head.
“This verdict does not alter the course on which we are adamantly set,” said Bynum, who took office in December. “It does not change our recognition of the racial disparities that have afflicted Tulsa historically.”
But Bynum wasn’t specific enough with details of how he would heal Tulsa’s racial wounds, and words will ring hollow without measurable change, Crutcher’s family and supporters said.
Bynum, who is white, won his campaign in 2016 in part on a platform of racial reconciliation. He’s worked closely with Police Chief Chuck Jordan, also white, who won praise for the quick release of video of the Crutcher shooting from police dashboard and helicopter cameras.
But the Shelby verdict is a setback, Crutcher’s family said, because it shows a larger failure of the legal system — and by extension society — to recognize the value of a black man’s life. Their heartbreak echoed that of families across the U.S. following a spate of killings of black people that has fueled a national debate over race and policing.
“We’re not making this a race issue; it is a race issue,” said Rodney Goss, pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church in north Tulsa, where a Thursday news conference turned into an impromptu rally, with dozens of cheering and praying residents sitting in the pews.
At that rally, Crutcher’s family called for one concrete change: For city leadership to block Shelby from returning to her job.
She’s been on unpaid leave since she was charged Sept. 22. The police chief will review an internal affairs investigation that will determine whether she again patrols Tulsa streets. Shelby’s attorney, Shannon McMurray, told The Associated Press Thursday that her client is unsure she’d even want to come back.
“I don’t know what she’s going to do,” McMurray said. “In my personal opinion, she can’t be back in law enforcement; it’s going to be too dangerous.
“She’s going to self-guess herself and get herself killed or somebody else,” she said.
Protests over Crutcher’s death and Shelby’s verdict were peaceful. Jurors didn’t decide the officer’s fate until after 9 p.m. Wednesday. Afterward, about 100 people marched and blocked an intersection, but no one was arrested. The jury comprised eight women and four men and included three African-Americans.
Jordan said Thursday his department would continue to uphold the public’s right to protest. He said his officers are trained to de-escalate tensions and that he expects demonstrations to continue to be peaceful.
It was Jordan’s decision to release video of the Crutcher shooting, and in January he canceled the Tulsa police contract with real-time arrest show “Live PD,” which critics say shows incidents of racial profiling and caters to viewers’ worst fears and biases.
“It made my city look bad; it made my police department look bad,” Jordan said during a recent interview. “Why would I continue that?”
While Tulsa may get little national attention, racial disparities in mostly black north Tulsa are obvious: Neighborhoods without a real grocery store and a ZIP code where a black baby has 10 years less life expectancy than a white baby.
But the deepest scar of all is a swath that has yet to recover economically from a 1921 race riot where hundreds of black residents were killed — their homes and businesses burned to the ground.
Tulsa’s population of 400,000 is about 16 percent black and one of nine city council members is African-American.
Marq Lewis, organizer of the local civil rights group We The People Oklahoma, said the verdict erased many of the inroads that had been made to repair a breach between law enforcement and black residents.
“Going forward, the relationship between the police department and the community is torn,” Lewis told the AP. “I don’t have high hopes for future relations.”