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America’s police use of force problem, in one sentence

The cop who killed Terence Crutcher basically admitted to “shoot first, ask questions later.”

A police officer at a shooting range.

Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images

Less than a year after it happened, the Tulsa, Oklahoma, police officer who shot and killed Terence Crutcher, an unarmed black man, is speaking out in public. The interview with 60 Minutes doesn’t add much to what we already know about the case, but it does contain one particularly alarming line from Betty Shelby, the officer.

“If I wait to find out if he had a gun or not, I could very well be dead,” Shelby claimed. Then the key sentence: “There’s something that we always say: ‘I’d rather be tried by 12 than carried by six.’”

This, in short, is a police officer conceding that she acted by “shooting first, ask questions later.” And while the mantra Shelby recites is common — not just among law enforcement, but in general — its basic meaning shouldn’t escape us.

Crutcher, as it turns out, didn’t have a gun either on himself or in his car. (Although he did allegedly have a vial of PCP in his vehicle.) Based on videos of the shooting, he had his hands in the air for much of his encounter with Shelby and other officers, including the seconds before he was shot — though cameras are obstructed the exact moments in which Shelby opens fire.

Remember, too, that Crutcher was not stopped because he was committing a crime. Officers arrived on the scene because they saw his car parked in the middle of the road. Yet by the time it was all over, he was dead.

Shelby, who will soon be on trial for manslaughter charges over the shooting, claims that Crutcher was acting erratically and trying to reach into his pockets and his car (although the car’s doors and windows were apparently closed). And she said Crutcher wasn’t following her orders; although his hands were in the air, he kept moving away from her when she reportedly told him to stop. Shelby said this led to her fearing for her life, even though Crutcher wasn’t being aggressive.

By Shelby’s own admission, in fact, Crutcher was not being aggressive. She responded, when asked if Crutcher was acting belligerent or showed signs of aggressiveness, with a frank “no” to each question.

But she still opened fire. Because, as she said, “I’d rather be tried by 12 than carried by six.”

Shelby acted based on the bit of uncertainty about the threat she perceived from Crutcher — maybe because of his race, although Shelby said she is not a racist in her 60 Minutes interview. So she shot, based on her account, just to be safe.

Police officers are given the power to enforce our laws and, if need be, use deadly force to protect themselves and others. Yet Shelby’s mantra shows the attitude many trained officers have about their potential ability to kill people.

This mentality isn’t necessary to the job, as some police departments are beginning to prove.

Some police departments are trying to change

Shelby’s admission is concerning in part because it’s representative of how many police departments and officers approach their work. The typical police mantra is that cops just want to make it home safe from work, so that’s what they’ll prioritize — even if it means getting a shooting wrong here or there.

Some police departments are now working to change this mentality. The Camden County, New Jersey, police department, for example, recently instituted new use of force policies — explained in detail by the New York Times — that emphasize saving suspects’ lives too.

Tyrrell Bagby, a 25-year-old Camden police officer, explained it so: “The old police mantra was make it home safely. Now we’re being taught not only should we make it home safely, but so should the victim and the suspect.”

This doesn’t mean Camden officers will have no value for their own lives, of course. It just means that instead of shooting early, they’ll take steps to avoid using force as much as possible. So, Joseph Goldstein wrote for the Times, they might try to engage in more informal conversation when commands (like “drop the knife”) don’t work, try to back up to a safer distance, and try to be patient with an uncooperative suspect. And if they do open fire, the police chief expects cops to carry the wounded to their cruisers and rush the victim to a hospital, not wait around for an ambulance.

Camden police have a video of this kind of strategy in action. Posted on the police department’s YouTube page, the video shows a man walking into a restaurant, brandishing a steak knife, and then walking down the street with the knife while swinging it in the air. Officers had shown up by this point, and they told him to drop the knife. He didn’t listen, so they surrounded him, tried to keep traffic clear around him, walked with him for a few blocks — and he eventually dropped the knife and was taken into custody.

"EVERYONE, including the armed and dangerous suspect, survived this potential deadly confrontation,” the police department declared.

It’s not just Camden. The Minneapolis Police Department changed its use of force policy to “exhaust all reasonable means in defusing potentially violent encounters before resorting to force,” Libor Jany reported for the Star Tribune last year. Other police departments, including New York, Chicago, and Baltimore, have embraced the Police Executive Research Forum’s “30 Guiding Principles” for use of force, which emphasizes that “the sanctity of human life should be at the heart of everything an agency does.”

The basic argument is that while a shooting may technically be legal under America’s loose standards for use of force, that doesn’t mean it’s right. The law, after all, only requires a police officer to reasonably perceive a threat, even if a threat isn’t actually present. But police department policy can go above and beyond what the law says — to encourage officers to protect and save as many lives as possible, not just their own.

Based on the interview that Shelby gave to 60 Minutes, if Tulsa had these principles in place last year and Shelby followed them, Terence Crutcher could be alive today.

Watch: How America’s justice system is rigged against the poor

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