‘Volunteer’ Sheriff’s Deputy Charged With Manslaughter In Death Of African-American Suspect
A volunteer for an Oklahoma Sheriff's Department killed a suspect thanks to what can only be described as extreme criminal negligence.
A 73 year old man who was serving as a volunteer for an Oklahoma’s Sheriff’s Department has been charged with manslaughter after he allegedly mistook his gun for his taser and killed an African American man being pursued by police:
Prosecutors in Tulsa, Okla., on Monday filed homicide charges against a 73-year-old Sheriff’s Department volunteer who fatally shot a suspect on April 2, apparently firing his handgun instead of a Taser by accident as other officers were subduing the man on the ground.
The volunteer, Robert C. Bates, was charged with second-degree manslaughter involving culpable negligence, punishable by up to four years in prison.
Mr. Bates, an insurance broker, had been a reserve deputy since 2008. He is among scores of civilian police enthusiasts, including wealthy donors to law enforcement, some of whom effectively act as an armed adjunct to the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department.
Sheriff’s officials said he had intended to subdue the fleeing suspect, Eric C. Harris, with a Taser, but mistakenly fired his handgun instead. Mr. Harris was accused of trying to sell an illegal gun to an undercover officer.
Video shot by a body camera worn by another deputy showed the suspect being knocked to the ground and commanded to roll on his stomach as officers struggled for a few seconds to subdue him. A voice on the video could be heard saying “Taser, Taser,” as if to warn other deputies to get out of the way of the device.
A moment later, there was a single gunshot, and a voice saying, “Oh, I shot him. I’m sorry.”
Mr. Harris, who is black, could be heard repeatedly shouting “He shot me,” while a deputy knelt on the suspect’s head and others yelled at him to stop struggling. The video showed Mr. Bates, who is white, dropping his pistol. Officials later said he dropped it because he was unprepared for the gun’s recoil, and called it added proof that the shooting was an accident; a Taser has negligible recoil.
Mr. Bates’s lawyer, Charles O. Brewster, said that his client would surrender to the authorities on Tuesday morning and that he intends to plead not guilty.
“Anyone that looked at the facts here would find that there was no crime committed,” Mr. Brewster said. “It was a truly tragic incident.”
Mr. Brewster expressed disappointment with the district attorney’s decision to charge his client.
“I think it’s kind of a response to the national fervor and media concerning police shootings,” he said. “I think he just kind of capitulated to that. This truly is an event that was unintended and what I consider to be a justifiable homicide.”
Mr. Bates was working with sworn officers in an undercover operation into illegal gun sales run by the Sheriff’s Department’s violent crimes task force.
Mr. Bates acted as an unpaid member of the department’s Reserve Deputy Program, in which about 130 volunteers receive training and are deployed part-time throughout the department. A Tulsa police officer for a year in 1964-65, he had received hundreds of hours of advanced training and “can do anything a full-time deputy can do,” The Tulsa World quoted a Sheriff’s Department spokesman, Shannon Clark, as saying.
In 2012, the department named Mr. Bates Reserve Deputy of the Year.
There’s a bit more to the story, as Ian Millhiser relates:
The shooting appears to be a tragic accident. Bates did say “Taser” before shooting Harris, and immediately after pulling the trigger, Bates drops the gun and says “Oh! I shot him. I’m sorry.” At a press conference on Friday, a Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson claimed that Bates was a “true victim” of something called “slips and capture” — a police term for when someone does one thing while believing they are doing something else in a high stress situation. They say that Bates believed he was holding his Taser and not his firearm when he fired the round that killed Harris.
Whatever Bates’s intentions, however, the other officers on the scene respond to Harris’s cries for help by forcefully pinning him to the ground and telling him to shut up in the video released by the sheriff’s department. As Harris lies face down on the ground bleeding and crying out “oh shit man, he shot me, he shot me! Oh, he shot me!” one officer puts his knee on Harris’s head in an apparent effort to subdue him. An officer tells Harris to “shut the fuck up” shortly thereafter.
When Harris tells one of the officers “I’m losing my breath,” the officer responds, “fuck your breath.”
Here’s the video (NSFW warning due to language):
This situation raises several questions that will need to be answered at some point. Off the top, there’s the open question of why a 73 year old volunteer Sheriff’s Deputy was doing in the middle of what was obviously a high-stakes and dangerous situation such as this. Notwithstanding whatever training he may have received, Bates was not a professional law enforcement officer, and it seems highly unusual that someone in his position would be used in this type of operation to begin with. In most police departments, volunteer officers such as Bates are used for things such as traffic control, crowd control during public gatherings, and other situations where they are unlikely to face violence confrontations. In many cases, these Auxiluray officers, as they are typically called, do not even carry a weapon, although that policy appears to vary from department to department. Even when they are armed, though, it appears to be rather unusual for volunteers such as Bates to be used in this manner. The reasons for that should be obvious. No matter how much training they get these volunteers are simply not going to be prepared for the kind of high pressure situations requiring split second decisions that regular officers face on a day to day basis. Add into that mix the fact that Bates is far older than you’d expect an active duty police officer to be, and it seems rather obvious that putting him in the line of fire like this was simply asking for something bad to happen.
Bates appears to be claiming that the shooting was completely a mistake, that he accidentally grabbed his firearm when he thought he was reaching for his Taser. Even if we accept his explanation, though, that just provides yet another bit of evidence for the argument that he didn’t belong in the middle of this operation to begin with. When you look at the facts, though, this explanation begins to lose credibility. For one thing, as is typically the case across the nation, officers in this department wear their Taser on the hip opposite from the one where their firearm is holstered, so you’d have to believe he somehow couldn’t tell his left from his right when he reached for the gun. Secondly, as the attorneys for the victim’s family demonstrated at a press conference yesterday, the Taser and the officer’s gun are different both in size, color, weight, and how they feel in the hand. Are we really supposed to believe that this “highly trained” volunteer couldn’t tell the difference between a Taser and a service weapon? And, again, if he couldn’t or if the heat of the moment caused him to make this mistake, then that’s just another reason why he shouldn’t have been in the field to begin with.
All of this being said, it does not appear that Bates consciously decided to murder Harris. Instead, it seems pretty clear that this was a mistake on some level, even though it seems clearly to have been a mistake that could have been avoided had the department kept Bates away from a situation he didn’t belong in, or had Bates actually applied some of that training he was supposedly given. The fact that it was a “mistake,” however doesn’t mean that Bates is immune from legal culpability. In appropriate situations, the law does allow someone to be punished if their negligence was so atrocious that it rises above the level of “normal” negligence, and it seems fairly clear that this is one of those cases. In this case, it’s clear that Bates’s error was more than a simple mistake, but instead rises to the level of what some jurisdictions call involuntary manslaughter, and what Oklahoma appears to call second-degree manslaughter. Whatever it’s called though, it basically involves the unintentional killing of another person as a result of a reckless disregard for the consequences of one’s actions or criminal negligence. It’s one of the less severe forms of homicide that can be punished under the law, but it remains a serious offense, and it’s entirely appropriate that Bates is facing charges in this case.
The free market and money are not the answer to everything.
Edit: What I mean here is that this joker bought his way into the department with thousands of dollars in donations and equipment. In return he gets to play cop. The results speak for themselves.
It’s amazing, isn’t it, the amount of empathy and sympathy and understanding and desire to look at the broader context you can get from an Oklahoma lawman — if, that is, the object of such compassion is himself a wealthy white businessman who like to play dress-up cop.
I wonder if the “slips and capture” defense — more popularly known as the “Oopsie!” Defense — is available to all defendants in the Oklahoma justic system?
I wonder, if I gave enough to the University of Oklahoma College of Medicine, if they’d allow me to scrub in and cut in with a scalpel during a heart surgery….?
@Tony W: Exactly. He was in that position because he paid well for the privilege of playing cop, including chairing the sheriff’s election campaign. He’s a wealthy old fool. He’s been chastened a bit, and I suspect he’ll end up a deal less wealthy.
Manslaughter sounds right. Maybe they aren’t overcharging as a ploy to protect him.
Volunteer police officer: “I’m sorry.”
Professional police officer: “Fuck your breath.”
(Giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, of course.)
The person to blame for this is whatever moron thought up this program to begin with. Jesus H., you want to give a gun to an amateur and have him chasing suspects? This is astoundingly irresponsible.
I imagine you’d have an steady supply of libertarian patients!
I heard the audio on the news last night, it did sound accidental, but in my opinion still warrants the manslaughter charge.
It’s amazing the number of goofballs who end up acting incredibly irresponsible with a gun, and then, when someone gets killed, “it was an accident!”
To hear these people talk, you’d get the idea the gun sprouted wings, flew over to the victim, and spontaneously shot said victim while the goofball was desperately trying to stop it.
It’s never the gun. Or the shooter, if the shooter is white. Guns = good. More guns = better. More deadly guns = even better.
Another dead black man? Oops! But really, no one’s at fault here, certainly not the guns or the gun users.
Let’s keep in mind the PD needed the money. They weren’t giving out these deputy badges for kicks. This is the plan they thought up because they could not get this money from taxes! It’s really no different than the Ferguson PD arresting everyone in Ferguson in order to get cash.
If only there had been an armed civilian there in order to subdue the shooter until the police arrived…oh…wait…er…I mean….
I know. Basically it’s a sort of safari: give us money and we guarantee you can bag a big black buck. Outfits and transportation included.
Tulsa is a shithole, always was, always will be. And I say this as a person with Okie blood in my veins.
This is incredibly reminiscent of the shooting of Oscar Grant in Oakland back in 2009. In that case, the officer was a regular BART officer.
I once had a job where I had to carry a LOT of things on my person. I actually trained and conditioned myself to always keep the same items in the same places, so I would never accidentally grab the wrong one. Of course, none of what I was carrying was in any way a weapon (although a couple might have made good cudgels), but it worked out well. Perhaps cops need to do the same thing. (“Gun on hip, taser in small of back. Gun on hip, taser in small of back.”)
Also, perhaps tasers should NOT be modeled after pistols. It’s an exceptionally ergonomic form factor and makes it easy for cops to use the same skills, but if they were shaped like, say, a DustBuster (I’m thinking of Star Trek: The Next Generation phasers, or perhaps a flashlight — anything but a pistol grip.
But yeah, this is “manslaughter.” Didn’t intend to kill him, but did kill him through negligence. It’s a good charge.
He was 73!
What paid cop works at that age? How many 73 year old paid cops are on the street during a sting operation?
Even if he were a fit, well-trained 35 year old it would still be incredibly stupid to arm an auxiliary officer and have them right there for the arrest during a sting operation.
It is mind-boggling.
Beyond Mr. Bates manslaughter charge, the Tulsa PD is definitely gonna get sued.
That this phrase exists is a massive problem. For something to warrant it’s own word in slang or patois, it’s culturally or functional important. It’s either a common enough occurrence it needs something specific for someone to refer to as shorthand or it’s needed to make a concept distinction necessary for the culture. For everyone else on the planet, the term is “mistake” or “error”. For the police to have specific wording for a @#&#-up that leads to shots fired and someone dead as “slips” is a massive shift in responsibility and guilt on the part of the shooter. That gets internalized and then acted on- you see in their responses in the video. The civilian immediately apologizes as a knee-jerk reaction, the real cops just press on and are offensive to the injured man to boot.
The civilian (who never should have been there!) realizes he @#&#@ up royal, the professional could care less and carries on regardless.
Oh yeah…like the Dick Cheney chicken-shit hunting safari’s….now I remember. Shoot your friend in the face….get a prize!!! Big manly gun-toting Republicans. What a bunch of clowns.
Dwight Schrute at work!
Sadly, these programs are nothing new. They’re how you end up with Steven Seagal driving a tank through your house and crushing your dog:
Actor Steven Seagal Sued for Driving Tank into Arizona Home, Killing Puppy
If they don’t already, they’re even more amazingly stupid then I got from the video. Like yourself, I carry multiple items on my person daily that could be quite lethal if used incorrectly. My work training is always pick a pocket or belt loop and there it stays, period. Consistency is the key because if I can’t see what I’m doing, I can still reach what I want easily and without thought. I get very upset when someone messes with my setup for that exact reason. It can be hard to drill this into someone who doesn’t have a preexisting anal streak but after a few mishaps, you pick up on the necessity pretty damn quick.
Then again, this guy was playing pretend. Dress-up time for adults. We can’t really expect him to be held to standards the police can’t even seem to uphold.
1. As with the shooting of Tamir Rice in Cleveland, the initial error of needlessly shooting someone was compounded (fatally) by then failing to provide prompt (or any) medical assistance to the victim. I am at least as angry about this trend as I am about the shootings in the first place. I can understand hot blood mistakes; I can’t understand the subsequent “let ’em bleed” as anything but willful murder.
2. When someone accidentally slams on the gas instead of the brakes, and runs over a pedestrian, nobody calls it a “justifiable homicide”. You can’t have it both ways, that it is “an accident” and also “justifiable homicide”. Maybe Mr. Brewster Esq. is merely incompetent, and doesn’t know what these words mean, but I suspect that’s not the case.
Are we really supposed to believe that this “highly trained” volunteer couldn’t tell the difference between a Taser and a service weapon?
(Doug, have you talked to any 73 year olds?)
My guess is a good lawyer is going to provide evidence of some mild cognitive impairement and Mr. Roberts will get off with a stern warning about any further shooting of people.
Lawyer holds up gun: Mr. Roberts, is this a gun or an apple?
Roberts: Um…an apple?
Lawyer: I rest my case!
He may even get demoted to traffic or crowd control unless he coughs up some serious loot for the department.
We can blame the volunteer deputy, and his lack of training and preparation for the situation. But it was not a volunteer who leaned on the head of a man who had just been shot, or who told him “f*ck your breath”.
A dog driving a tank through your house and crushing Steven Seagal? Now that’s a story.
I can see the argument for it being a mistake (I think its manslaughter). But justifiable? WTF? I know lawyers are supposed to defend their clients, but that’s simply insane.
Does the argument go “The man was lying down with cops on him, so my client was justified to kill him?”
Or just “The man was black so my client was justified in killing him”?
Both excellent points. Of course once a cop realizes he’s done something wrong he needs the victim to die so there won’t be a witness.
And it’s not limited to cops, among my gun advocate associates (” guns everywhere, all the time’), I can’t tell you how many have said – if you shoot someone, whatever the reason, make sure their dead.
Volunteer police also know how to finish off their witnesses ( See Martin, Trayvon). Of course, if a police officer had shot Harris, they would have done a much better job of writing the report “the right way” ( Harris would have been resisting, maybe even charging the officers) and the taser would have ended up beside Harris.
When you see news stories on gun accidents it always seems to be, “the gun went off’, “the gun fell to the floor and discharged”, “the gun snagged on his waistband and fired.” It never seems to be “he dropped it” or “he failed to clear it before cleaning” or even “his thumb slipped on the hammer.” Looks like the NRA lied, guns do kill people.
My question is this: The victim didn’t die immediately. It appears that the shooting was aggravated by, as a minimum, rough handling. How long did it take to get help? Is there a contribution to his death by the actions of the other officers? Could they be culpable also?
Agreed. Not that familiar with OK law, but there should be a massive wrongful death suit in the works against this department.
Qualified Immunity means never having to say your sorry.
More specifically, there’s the catch 22 created by Connick v. Thompson. Bates can’t be held responsible because he wasn’t properly trained by the department and thus is covered by qualified immunity. The department can’t be held responsible for failing to properly train Bates because it’s the actions of a single deputy and not a pervasive issue for the entire department.
Silly man. He should have just gone on neighborhood watch and waited until a black kid walked through the neighborhood alone.
Watching the video, I thought a couple semi-random thoughts:
A) We need to, as a culture, stop editing raw video for language and identity. If I must watch a video like this, and I don’t really like to, I want to hear and see what’s happening. F$%& the FCC.
B) I wonder if the man would have survived had they applied pressure on his wound instead of his head.
C) If the suspect is on the ground, no weapons. No sticks, no tasers, no guns.
D) Whenever I go to the rodeo, I see tremendous feats of rope-handling. Why is this not a skill taught to police-officers? Is it inhumane to lasso a suspect?
It’s unsettling to know that the volunteer deputy had a more human immediate reaction, than did the trained “professional.”
Well jeez, James, how are we supposed to “teach him a lesson” then? I mean, you want him to just go to jail, with no broken ribs or nothing? Where’s the fun in being a cop then?
I was referring to the negligent lack of response once the sworn officers were aware the guy had been shot. They appear to not have taken any action to initiate an EMT response. If anything, they demonstrated a total lack of concern for his well-being after he had been shot. The delay may have killed him.
Warren v. District of Columbia: the police have no specific duty of care to individual members of the public.
Dear God, that’s appalling.
Does the public also have no specific duty to pay the salary of any particular police officer?
I’m sure that I don’t need to point out that wrongful death in this instance is a state level tort governed by Oklahoma law & precedent.
So much wrong here. My ranking of wrong-ness:
1) The supposedly trained cops, who say things like “fuck your breath”. Wow, I really hope that guy drowns really slowly someday. While being on fire. In a pile of manure.
2) The asshole lawyer who says this was a “justifiable homicide”. As DrDaveT points out, it can’t be both an accident and a justifiable homicide. And in what was is it remotely justifiable anyway???
3) Mr. Bates playing cop. I’m saving a tiny amount of empathy for him because he appeared to actually be sorry for a terrible, terrible mistake.
@Bob @ Youngstown: That’s because that is how the laws tend to be written. If you leave someone alive then prosecutors tend to argue that your life wasn’t in danger thus the shooting wasn’t justified. In some areas if you shoot someone invading your house and they die outside of the house you’re liable.
There’s a bundle of these scenarios where leaving someone wounded is worse legally than ensuring death.
If we live long enough, we get to hear a phrase like, “Is it inhumane to lasso a suspect?”
I don’t quite know why but that made me smile.
@James Pearce: It’s extremely hard to lasso a person that is running. Also unlike cows people have arms that allow them to easily deflect the rope.
Could the person who signed off on Bates (or the policy that allowed someone like Bates) to be at the scene while armed and active during arrests be criminally liable? What would the charge be?
Negligent homicide by proxy? Dumbassery in the first degree?
IANAL, but it seems that such a decision lays open the Tulsa PD to massive civil liability. Are any criminal charges also applicable?
Bates apologized to the other cops, not the guy he shot. He said “I shot him,” not “I shot you.”
His immediate reaction was that he eff’ed up the arrest, not that he’d shot a man. The human reaction would be to blurt “Oh! I shot you. I’m sorry.”
His immediate human reaction was concern about the state of his in-group acceptance.
@Tony W: Jack Ruby was well-known for doing favors (coffee and doughnuts, lunches, passes to his strip club) for the Dallas Police Department; which is one reason he was able to walk into Dallas police HQ unchecked and gun down Lee Harvey Oswald. Of course, he didn’t ask to dress up and play cop.
I agree with most of the comments here, but wanted to say that Reserve Officers and the Auxiliary officers Doug is talking about are not really that comparable. Volunteer officers can be, and are, “real” police officers in many parts of the country. The process in this place seems F’d up, but not because a volunteer officer had a gun and was put in a position requiring real police work.
Doubtful with regard to any liability stemming from the decision to allow him to be a reserve officer in and of itself. Oklahoma does have an official tort act in which the state cedes sovereign immunity in specified circumstances, with associated limits on damage awards. What I see being up in the air is whether or not the reserve officer is termed as being an agent of the state, and would therefore be covered as an individual by the terms of the OTA. I’m doubtful that he would, so the likely outcome would be a wrongful death suit which jointly and severally names both the agency and the shooter as an individual.
It’s likely that the agency will settle under the limits specified by the OTA, and the plaintiffs would then pursue individual damages against the shooter over and above any recovery obtained from the agency. Again, though, I’m not admitted in OK and not particularly motivated to dig through OK precedent to be more definitive. It’ll play out how it plays out.
Thanks, man. Glad someone can appreciate my perverse sense of humor.
Sure, but -not being funny now- “extremely hard” is not “impossible,” and with skill, the “extremely hard” becomes somewhat easier, if never “easy.”
We allow police to shoot suspects, to blind them with chemicals, to zap them with enough volts to bring them to their knees, but rope is out of the question? I think lassoing people is a horrible idea that would probably result in people being choked out, but I also think we need to be thinking about other ways to deal with these situations above and beyond the current methods.
More humane, more effective methods preferably.
@michael reynolds: “I know. Basically it’s a sort of safari: give us money and we guarantee you can bag a big black buck. Outfits and transportation included.”
This. He bought a license to go N****-hunting.