Tulsa's police chief vows to do 'the right thing.' What does that look like?

Tulsa takes a first step by quickly releasing the video of a local officer shooting a black man. But to avoid the protests in other cities, experts say the department will have to investigate thoroughly and communicate well.

Tom Gilbert/Tulsa World via AP
Tulsa police chief Chuck Jordan speaks to the media during a press conference in Tulsa, Okla., Monday, Sept 19, 2016.

The actions of the Tulsa, Okla., police department following the shooting of a black man by a police officer on Friday so far suggest a grasp of the value of transparency in policing today, law enforcement and criminal justice analysts say.

But whether Tulsa will see a different result than other cities that have been the site of officer-involved shootings depends on at least two things, they note: 1) the transparency and speed of the investigations into Officer Betty Shelby’s actions before and during the shooting, and 2) how well local authorities continue to communicate with the public. If taken, they say, such steps would indicate that police leadership is learning from the lessons of violent interactions between police and the black community over the past few years.

“The first thing they’re going to have to do is a full, thorough, transparent, and objective investigation of that incident,” says Charles Wilson, chairman of the National Association of Black Law Enforcement Officers (NABLEO) and a 45-year veteran of law enforcement.

“[And] no matter what the result of their investigation is,” he adds, “They need to have a lengthy and in-depth sit-down with the community to let them know, ‘This is how we police. This is what we do and why we do it.’ ”

Tulsa police said they were responding to a call Friday evening about an abandoned vehicle on a roadway north of the city. A woman had reportedly told a 911 operator that the man had said his vehicle might blow up.

Video evidence

Video footage from an officer’s dashcam and a police helicopter shows four officers moving toward Terence Crutcher as he walked, with his hands up, toward his vehicle. As he got closer to the SUV, Mr. Crutcher lowered his hands – and then quickly fell to the ground. Police said Officer Shelby shot him in the upper body once at almost the same time another officer, Tyler Turnbough, fired a stun gun at him.

Tulsa police showed the footage to Crutcher’s family before releasing it to the public, a department spokesperson said. Police Chief Chuck Jordan then met with reporters to acknowledge that Crutcher was unarmed during the incident, and to assure the community that the department intends to “achieve justice.”

“I would like to see us be a better city than some of the other cities we’ve seen,” Chief Jordan said. “I hope some of my performance in the past has shown you we will do the right thing."

To some, Jordan’s words and actions so far indicate a department that is making progress toward openness and accountability. Allowing the public to see for themselves what the footage shows and assuring them that the incident will be taken seriously is crucial at the early stages of such a case, says Tom Nolan, program director of the criminology and criminal justice program at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.

“There’s nothing more serious than the taking of a life,” Professor Nolan says. “The release of the video in the immediate aftermath is commendable. That’s a good first step.”

From here on out, however, “the right thing” could mean a number of things.

Next steps

For Nolan, it’s putting together the best and quickest investigation of the incident – one that would right away lead to a decision about whether to press criminal charges against Shelby. Delays, as in the cases of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City, have proven to be bad practice, Nolan says.

“Calling on the local prosecutor to make a decision shows the public that a) the case is being taken seriously and b) you’re going to move as decisively as you would with anyone else, whether or not they are officers of the law,” Nolan says.

For others, next steps need to run deeper than fair and transparent court proceedings. Tulsa is the same place that convicted a reserve sheriff’s deputy of second-degree manslaughter following the shooting of an unarmed man in April 2015, notes Jody Armour, a professor of law who specializes in criminal justice at the University of Southern California.

“You would think the police department has engaged in critical self-reflection since then,” he says. But while Jordan is making “the right noises,” Professor Armour says, “a lot of these expressions of concern by the police chief just sound hollow when not backed up by concrete reform.”

For that to happen, police need to continue to cultivate relationships with the communities they serve, both criminal justice analysts and members of law enforcement say.

“The fundamental principle here is we have to invest in a bank of community trust long before you need to make a withdrawal in a case like this,” says Jim Bueermann, a former police chief and president of the Police Foundation, a nonpartisan nonprofit that focuses on improving policing nationwide.

The task is easier said than done, he says. The nation’s nearly 18,000 police agencies are disparate groups that work under a variety of state and local laws, making it hard to develop – much less employ – a nationwide standard of best practices based on the lessons of previous years. A disconnect also exists between the practice of policing and what the public understands of it – a gap that needs to be filled through a cultural change around the police’s role in society, Mr. Bueermann and others say.

“You’ve got to get more people involved. People have to really want to sit down and talk … and bring something positive to the table,” says Mr. Wilson, the NABLEO chairman. “And police have to listen to what’s being said and take it as constructive information. We have to fully explain to people that this is what we do ... because they don’t know.”

But change comes slowly, he and others say. Police departments are just getting to a place where things like de-escalation training are becoming part of standard instruction. Community policing is a key idea in more progressive cities and agencies, but still struggles to take root in some places.

“That’s why we continue seeing situations like we saw over the weekend,” says Nolan at Merrimack. “Whether or not police continue to do the right thing in Tulsa, maybe we can be optimistic based on what’s been going on the last couple of days.” 

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