by David A. Love
Are we witnessing the new normal, a new phase in the erasure of Black lives?
If recent events in Tulsa, Oklahoma are any indication, it’s time for us to wake up and pay attention.
Betty Shelby, the ex-Tulsa police officer who killed an unarmed Black man named Terence Crutcher, 40, in September 2016 was charged with first degree manslaughter and found not guilty in May of his year.
Wednesday, a judge went even further and expunged Shelby’s record, sealing all court documents and erasing the incident in the eyes of the law. As Tulsa World reported, Shelby claimed she “faces dangers of unwarranted adverse consequences” if the case was not expunged. With regard to the manslaughter charge, the judge’s order allows Shelby to say that “no such action ever occurred and that no such record exists.”
It’s as if it never happened, because who should have their life and career tarnished over the taking of another life?
A Black life?
Things suddenly went from great to fabulous for Shelby. On August 3, she resigned from the Tulsa Police Department. Not more than a week later, less than a year after taking Crutcher’s life, she became a reserve deputy with the Rogers County Sheriff’s Office.
Because Blue Lives Matter.
According to her new boss, Sheriff Scott Walton, Shelby will “bring a lot to the table” with 10 years of experience. Apparently, the killing of an unarmed Black man in her portfolio did not dissuade her new employer, and maybe it even sealed the deal. Given that Shelby–like so many other cops–not only get a pass but are rewarded for shooting civilians, it is no wonder why violent, trigger-happy officers are allowed to commit more crimes and take more lives.
Under state law, the record is sealed and stored for 10 years, during which time someone may file a petition to unseal it, and a judge could unseal some or all of the file if circumstances change or if there is a compelling reason. Otherwise, the record is destroyed.
In a country where police kill a lot of people and almost never face discipline, much less indictment, it is not surprising that officers can walk away and pretend they didn’t do what we all know they did.
Police enjoy union contracts and a bill of rights that make it difficult to hold them accountable for violence and misconduct. According to Campaign Zero, of 4,024 or more people killed by police between 2013 and 2016, only 85 cases led to a criminal charge, and only 6 resulted in a conviction.
A review by Check the Police of police union contracts in 81 of the largest 100 cities and police bills of rights in 14 states found that 72 of cities and 13 of states had at least one barrier to police accountability, while 63 cities and 12 states had three or more provisions against accountability.
Many of these agreements disqualify certain complaints from being investigated or disciplined, restricts the interrogation of police officers, allow officers under investigation access to information that are denied to ordinary civilians, and prevent an officer’s past misconduct to be considered in future cases. In many cases, cities must provide the officer’s paid leave, legal fees and settlement payments. And in 43 cities and 3 states, they erase the officer’s record of misconduct after as little as two years.
Some of this nonsense may be taking place in a city near you. For example, Chicago’s police union contract shields violent offenders from public scrutiny and requires that police misconduct records are destroyed. In St. Louis, the police union has blocked civilian oversight from having the power to discipline officers, while Austin police block civilian oversight boards from having subpoena powers.
Portland police are protected from “embarrassment,” while Baltimore police who kill get to keep their pay. Cleveland police have their discipline records erased, San Antonio delays investigation of police officers for 48 hours.
In Seattle, the police contract guarantees officers cannot be disciplined if an investigation is not completed in 18 days. And thanks to the Columbus police union contract, civilian complaints not filed within 60 days are disqualified.
None of this should work this way. And while nobody is above the law, the cops can skirt the law and put it all in writing. Law enforcement unions never embraced the labor movement. Their collective bargaining agreements are supposed to ensure due process and fair treatment of their workers, not deny citizens their dignity and their rights.
“Police unions across the country have used the collective bargaining process to circumvent basic tenets of accountability, transparency, and fairness. In short, as a result of these contracts police officers operate by a completely different set of rules,” Campaign Zero said. “In many cases, the problematic clauses contained within these contracts appear harmless on the surface but, as our analysis shows, they impose severe restrictions on the ability of police departments and civilian oversight structures to hold officers accountable for police violence.”
What is the solution? The people must take it all back.
The Movement for Black Lives calls for community control of all law enforcement agencies, including the power to hire and fire police, discipline bad cops, determine their budgets and policies, and subpoena information from their departments. Until those impacted by police violence have the power to regulate bad apples and rein them in, nothing will change, and the bodies of Black folk like Terence Crutcher will continue to litter the streets like roadkill.
When it comes to the erasure of Black people shot to death by bad cops, Betty Shelby is only the tip of the iceberg.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter @davidalove.