On Thursday afternoon Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby was charged with felony manslaughter in the first degree for fatally shooting Terence Crutcher. The charges came just six days after Shelby took the 40-year-old’s life as he waited for roadside assistance, which is record timing in the realm of police brutality cases — officers names haven’t even been released that quickly in some cases. And as such is also curious timing consider the obvious difference between Shelby and other officers who’ve committed the same crimes: She’s a woman.
Make no mistake, Shelby deserves to be charged and I’m glad she has been, given the precedent that’s been set in cases like this. A grand jury failed to indict Brian Encinia, Darren Wilson, Daniel Pantaleo, Timothy Loehmann, and Sean Williams and David Darkow in the deaths of Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and John Crawford, respectively, so this decision is a victory, albeit small. Being charged with manslaughter is one thing, being convicted is quite another, and thus far we haven’t seen a win on that front. In fact, the upcoming trials of Michael Slager and Ray Tensing, who have been indicted in the fatal shootings of Walter Scott and Sam Dubose, will be the first time in recent years we’ve seen true law enforcement brought up on criminal charges for these latest instances of police brutality, aside from the Freddie Gray mistrials and the conviction of Peter Liang in the death of Akai Gurly. So yes, this is a victory. However, in addition to the diminished hope I have for a conviction in Shelby’s case because of how these jury decisions usually go, I also can’t help but feel like her conviction is a clear sign that we can continue to expect more of the same.
If there’s one thing all of these incidents have shown us it’s that officers protect their own, and considering “Law enforcement is one of the least gender diverse of any public-sector profession, with male officers accounting for more than 88 percent of the nation’s municipal police forces,” it can be assumed their “own” is men. And in a field where 73% of officers are white, one can also assume “own” is white men. Hence the feeling Shelby has been hung out to dry while the old boys in blue club continues with plans to conduct business as usual — or rather murder as usual.
Further, “Data show that female cops discharge their firearms at rates far below their male counterparts, face significantly fewer civilian complaints and are less likely than men to resort to unnecessary physical force when arresting someone,” Aljazeera pointed out. Officer Shelby’s behavior clearly contradicts these findings; however I can’t help but speculate that, if convicted, her criminal punishment won’t send the message that it should to the police force. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if sexist rhetoric was implored to explain away her possible conviction instead of officers finally understanding that you cannot continue to kill black men and women and get away with it. That, of course, doesn’t mean Shelby shouldn’t still be found guilty. It means, we can’t let her be the only one and we certainly can’t let the narrative that will likely form around these charges distract from the fact that there are many officer Shelbys out there, most of which are white males, and they need to pay for their crimes just as she should. Female cops aren’t the problem; white male cops aren’t even the problem; racist, poorly trained cops who fear those they’ve been tasked to protect are the problem. And they all should be subject to the same fate: justice. As we await the results of the investigations into the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Keith Scott, only time will tell if the tide is truly changing, or Shelby is merely a sacrificial lamb.