Moments before a Tulsa, Oklahoma, police officer shot and killed Terence Crutcher, a police officer watching the scene from a helicopter remarked that Crutcher looked like a “bad dude.”
Crutcher, it would turn out, was unarmed. In the seconds before officer Betty Shelby opened fire, just before an officer said he looked like a “bad dude,” Crutcher had his hands up in the air — doing seemingly nothing to warrant aggression or insults from officers, based on videos released by police.
To Crutcher’s sister, Tiffany Crutcher, the “bad dude” remark seemed to be a sticking point while watching the videos in which her brother was killed.
“You all want to know who that big ‘bad dude’ was,” she said in a video published by Tulsa World. “That big ‘bad dude’ was my twin brother. That big ‘bad dude’ was a father. That big ‘bad dude’ was a son. That big ‘bad dude’ was enrolled at Tulsa Community College — just wanting to make us proud. That big ‘bad dude’ loved God. That big ‘bad dude’ was at church singing, with all his flaws, every week.”
She added, “That big ‘bad dude,’ his life mattered.”
Crutcher’s family wants criminal charges filed against Shelby, who shot and killed the unarmed 40-year-old.
Shelby was not the officer who called Crutcher a “bad dude.” But the comments have stuck because they seem to show, considering Crutcher wasn’t doing anything wrong at the time the remarks were made, evidence of racial bias — the kind that would lead police to shoot and kill an unarmed black man.
Police, like much of the public, possess subconscious racial biases
Multiple studies have found evidence of racial biases among police and the public.
A May 2014 review of the research found that police officers seem to possess implicit bias that might make them more likely to shoot — or at least quicker to shoot — black suspects than white ones. Josh Correll, a University of Colorado Boulder psychology professor who conducted much of the research, said it’s possible the bias could lead to even more skewed outcomes in the field. “In the very situation in which [officers] most need their training,” he said, “we have some reason to believe that their training will be most likely to fail them.”
Some studies have also found that the public and police are less likely to view black people as innocent. As part of a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2014, researchers studied 176 mostly white, male police officers, and tested them to see if they held an unconscious “dehumanization bias” against black people by having them match photos of people with photos of big cats or apes. Researchers found that officers commonly dehumanized black people, and those who did were most likely to be the ones who had a record of using force on black children in custody.
In the same study, researchers interviewed 264 mostly white, female college students and found that they tended to perceive black children ages 10 and older as “significantly less innocent” than their white counterparts.
“Children in most societies are considered to be in a distinct group with characteristics such as innocence and the need for protection,” Phillip Goff, a researcher at John Jay College and the author of the study, said in a statement. “Our research found that black boys can be seen as responsible for their actions at an age when white boys still benefit from the assumption that children are essentially innocent.”
It is impossible to know what, exactly, was going on in that officer’s mind as he uttered the words “bad dude.” But the research suggests that one reason police may perceive a black man as bad, even if he’s fully innocent, is subconscious racial bias.