Thursday, May 18, 2017

Hypothetical Verdicts: Crutcher, Shelby, and Blame

Last night a jury in Tulsa reached a verdict in a high-profile case in which a police officer, Betty Shelby, shot and killed an unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher. When she shot him, Crutcher was neither doing what she ordered him to do nor posing a clear threat (he was walking away from her with his arms raised, apparently putting those arms on the side of his car). Like so many other cases like it, the jury came back with a "not guilty" verdict.

I want to begin by saying​ something about this case that I think ought to be uncontroversial. What happened in this case is that a man with a drug problem who in fact posed no threat encountered, as part of a routine traffic stop, an officer who set out that day to serve and protect, not to kill people. And yet the officer shot the man, killing him. When that happens, something has gone terribly wrong.

What went wrong was not an "act of God." Crutcher did not die from an illness or a natural disaster. He was shot. And yet he did nothing that deserved death. He was under the influence of hallucinogenic drugs, and he wasn't perfectly obedient to the officers commands. But these are not the sorts of things that warrant death. And so something has gone terribly wrong.

That is the uncontroversial thing I want to l say. But now come the difficult questions. Suppose we accept the jury's judgment that the officer was not responsible for what went so terribly wrong. Who is, then? Is it appropriate to blame the man who died--blame him because in his confused state he wasn't absolutely and perfectly obedient, because he went to put his hands on his car in a move that trained officers (but not the man) have learned bad guys might use to grab for a gun? Is that the choice the jury was given? Blame the white woman in the police uniform, the one sitting in front of them looking earnest and just like them, a good citizen who means well; or blame the drug-using black man who is gone, who is nowhere in sight because he is dead, dead by a bullet lodged in his lung, a bullet propelled there by the twitch of that earnest woman's trigger finger?

Perhaps the jury had too few options. Perhaps when it comes to assessing responsibility for something that has gone so terribly wrong, juries are forced into a false dilemma.The jury was not given the option to  deliver, for example, the following hypothetical verdict: "We cannot convict you because the fault is wider than you and deeper than you. You were just there at that moment with the legacy of our cultural conditioning and our collective fears; you were there, and the systems and practices and norms of our society came together in you, pulling the trigger and making a man die, a man who posed no threat. But it could have been any one of us, and we would have done the same."

There was no option for saying that. Should there be?

Shelby and Crutcher were not alone in that moment. I don't just mean that other officers present and the helicopter whirring overhead. Social forces came together in that moment--including, perhaps, the white majority's collective fear of black men, a fear that we feed and perpetuate in all kinds of subtle ways. We feed it and perpetuate it in the unconscious minds of children who grow up wanting to serve and protect. And then one day an officer is afraid that she won't make it home alive--even though as a matter of fact the man was moving slowly away from her with his arms in the air.

Are we quicker to jump to threat scenarios when it's a black man than when it's, say, a white woman? To Shelby, it seemed like a vivid possibility that Crutcher, drugged and disoriented, might lunge through the car window to grab a gun, spin towards Shelby, and fire with deadly aim. It was so vivid, so live as a threat that she shot and killed this man whose hands were in the air, who had no gun, no gun at all. Would it have struck her as such a vivid possibility, such a plausible source of fear-- something demanding such immediate, fatal, and irrevocable action--if Crutcher had been a white woman? Also, would empathy and fellow human feeling have been potent in that case, acting to curb fatal mistakes by making them seem more dire?

I'm not talking here about overt racism. I'm not talking about deliberately discounting black lives because they are black. What I'm talking about are unconscious, implicit biases formed in us through social conditioning, biases we don't even know we have and which shape our perceptions in moments of crisis when there isn't time to make more steady, considered judgments.

Did the jury find her not guilty in part because they share the same fears, the same unconscious presuppositions that shape how they envision unfolding events? Did they identify with her and her perspective because they were subject to the same social conditioning? Was it especially easy for them, because of our shared culture, to understand why that unarmed man who was not engaged in hostile or aggressive action could appear to the officer in that moment as a deadly threat?

If this were a freakish case, an unheard-of anomaly in the American landscape, then we might accept the verdict, say "Whatever it was that went wrong, the jury looked at the evidence and decided it wasn't the officer's fault," and then move on with our lives. But we don't have that luxury, because this is not some unheard-of anomaly in American life.

If we accept the verdict, that means we must look beyond the officer to determine what went wrong, to discern what brokenness in our society needs to be fixed so that tragedies like this don't keep happening.

A guilty verdict would have said many things. Among them, it would have said to my black friends watching the trial with trepidation and a thread of hope that this time, in this case, a black life mattered. But a guilty verdict might also have said, "We've found the culprit, the source of the problem. It was this particular woman. The rest of us are off the hook." If we accept the verdict and we accept that black lives really do matter as much as white lives, then we need to ask why this sort of thing keeps happening and what we can do to fix it.

Maybe, in our current world, "not guilty" means "No one's to blame! We're off the hook!" while "guilty" means "That one person is to blame! The rest of us are off the hook!" Maybe there is no way, with the verdicts on offer, for any verdict to ever move us to ask what has gone so horribly wrong and what we can do, what we must do, to change things.

And so we return to my hypothetical verdict, a different kind of "not guilty" verdict: "Not guilty by virtue of the fact that we, society, are collectively to blame for the forces that came together in that tragic moment; not guilty because any one of us, conditioned as we have been conditioned and socialized as we have been socialized, might have done the same thing in that moment. Not guilty because we are all guilty, not guilty in a way that demands collective responsibility. Not guilty in a way that does not erase guilt but demand accountability."

And maybe that "not guilty"verdict needs to be paired with a different kind of guilty verdict: "Guilty by virtue of being an agent of something deeper than the individual, of social wrongs that found expression in this person at this moment but are not isolating to the individual; guilty in a way that does not let others off the hook but recognizes the deep roots of tragic wrongs and demands collective responsibility and broader accountability."

In our individualistic culture, we don't like those kinds of verdicts. Such verdicts would be a call to action, a call to social change. Easier to treat not-guilty verdicts as exonerating not only the individuals but also ourselves, and guilty-verdicts as heaping all the guilt on the bad guys so that the rest of us can feel cleansed.


  1. I don’t know anything about the case except from what I’ve just read in your piece, but here are my thoughts:

    Perhaps the jury found the officer not guilty because it was made plain to them that she had acted within the parameters she had been instructed to act in such situations: If a suspect behaves erratically, does not perfectly obey, and there is some ground to believe that the suspect is about to use deadly force – then the officer is authorized to shoot first. That the suspect did not in fact possess a gun and did not in fact endanger anybody is irrelevant. Still what I don’t understand why not instruct the officer to try not use deadly force, why not shoot the suspect in the legs for example?

    To take drugs and behave erratically endangers not only other peoples’ lives but also one’s own. Part of the risk here is to have an encounter with a police officer who is authorized and may tragically shoot first.

    I have little doubt that the suspect’s skin color played a role in this tragic incident, and I understand this is a huge problem. A problem that justly hurts the black community. Indeed understand there have been worse cases than this one. I can easily imagine how blacks must feel, but I can also easily imagine how it is like to be a police officer working every day in the streets.

    The only solution I can see is better education for all. Which to me also means better religious education. And also includes less culture of violence in the arts – I can’t fathom why so much violence – indeed horrible violence - in American movies for example.

  2. Public intoxication & failure to perfectly obey the police doesn't justify the use of deadly force by the police. If it did, cops would mowing down hundreds of drunks every day. Shelby shot crutcher because she was badly trained and/or cowardly. (The other reason many cops use excessive force is that they are high on power, but I don't think that was much of a factor here.)
    None of this is new. Abuse of power by the powerful has been going on since the beginning of humanity. Two things have changed: we now recognize that all people have rights; millios of people are walking around with video cameras, so bad actions by police are being CAUGHT!