Age thrown into race-police struggles

Is the rash of police shootings part of some new worrisome trend or is it a constant that has stayed far from the limelight until recently?

That might be a difficult question to answer. But a “police-involved shooting” on April 2 in Tulsa, Okla. may throw all sorts of prevailing theories to the wind.

The fact is the number of citizens who die from fatal police shootings is not an answer kept and reported like the number of police who are killed in the line of duty. That’s hard to imagine but bureaucracies like to ignore or hide those statistics most meaningful to the public.

During my career as a newspaper reporter when covering cops I would inevitably be assigned to write a story about the latest FBI crime figures released for this or that city. I would go see the officer who keeps crime stats or the chief of police. Some might offer a reason for the rise in a particular crime index. Others would, in their best cop-ese, say these figures are worthless.

You see, unless you kept records on why such crimes were committed, it would be practically impossible to harbor a guess as to why the particular crimes go up or down. Oh, but the editor doesn’t want the latter. “There’s got to be a reason.” Okay boss, we’ll find a reason, even if there isn’t one!

Information researched in the wake of some recent fatal civilian deaths shows somewhere between 400 and 1,000 people are killed by police each year. Whether that is just by firing a weapon, or beating with batons or kicking perps when they are down or zapping them with a Taser, who knows? By hearing such recent and shocking deaths of black people at the hands of white cops might lead one to believe that most of those people killed are black. That would be surmised because most crimes committed are by black actors, right?


It turns out some stats are kept on who commit crimes. And the estimation of black and white perps is off the mark. One survey found people wrongly estimate that blacks commit more crimes than other races by sometimes notable margins. Even so, that doesn’t tell us much about the racial aspect of police-involved shootings.

Where does that leave us? Well, in some cases — rare until recently — local authorities who receive video proof of an alleged wrongful shooting are actually charging their fellow policemen who fire the shot.

Former police officer Michael Slager, charged with murder. In Charleston, S.C., jail
Former police officer Michael Slager, charged with murder. In Charleston, S.C., jail

The most notorious case is one in which a witness recently captured the video of South Carolina police officer Michael Slager while fatally shooting Walter Scott. Scott was stopped for a tail light violation and took off running, possibly because he owed child support. Slager has been fired and charged with murder. He remains jailed.

But now we have an even more recent shooting by a white cop of a black man in which a new twist is added. Another police video — this one from a body cam — shows Tulsa County, Okla., Reserve Deputy Sheriff Bob Bates saying: “Oh, I shot him. I’m sorry.” This is just after he fatally wounded Eric Courtney Harris. The 44-year-old Harris was shown being shot after allegedly resisting arrest following a gun buy sting operation. The new wrinkle, pardon the pun, is that Bates is 73 years old.

Bates can be heard yelling “Taser … ,” before the shooting and the deputy’s apology. The call-out supposedly meant Bates had meant to deploy his Taser. But he pulled out and engaged the wrong weapons, according to the sheriff’s office. Bates has been charged with second-degree manslaughter, according to Tulsa Co. District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler.

 “Oklahoma law defines culpable negligence as ‘the omission to do something which a reasonably careful person would do, or the lack of the usual ordinary care and caution in the performance of an act usually and ordinarily exercised by a person under similar circumstances and conditions,’” Kunzweiler said.

The penalty for second-degree manslaughter in Oklahoma carries a penalty of up to four years in prison.

Regardless of the possibility of prison if Bates is convicted, the issue of age will likely rear its head in this case. Would a younger man get a Taser, many times bright yellow, confused with a handgun that worn by police these days are often black? Or is such a case similar to that comparison made by Tulsa Sheriff Stanley Glanz, himself 72 and a fishing buddy of Bates, in which doctors make mistakes in operating rooms every day?

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