When a geriatric millionaire can’t tell the difference between the snub nosed .357 in his right hand, the “pepper ball” rifle in his left hand and the taser strapped to his chest, should he really be chasing down a suspect during a sting operation? What about when he buys de facto deputization complete with friendships all the way up the Tulsa County Sheriffs Office chain of command via fishing trips to Florida and the Bahamas? And what if he throws in some vehicles and weapons just to sweeten the deal? Is this really part of departmental policy? Seriously?
While we’re on the subject of policy, is it policy to release an extremely calculated press statement the day of the shooting that served little more purpose than to merely attack the character of the deceased by calling him a “convicted felon on PCP” who fled from law enforcement while “reaching for his waistband” causing deputies to “fear for the their safety”? Is it also policy to quietly redact those statements days later, just before you release an edited video clip that arguably contradicts those very statements? If these are indeed departmental policies, it seems Tulsans may have more to fear than an old man with a crackerjack sheriffs badge and his own arsenal of weapons. The Sheriffs Department on the other hand may also have a little more to fear than just the current public relations debacle if it comes to light that they deliberately mislead each one of us from the start.
When 73 year old Robert Bates accidently shot Eric Harris in the back on April 2nd, the wheels of mitigation began to spin almost immediately. If you watch the video it seems that Bates was truly startled by the realization of what he had just done. He yelled repeatedly “I shot him, I’m sorry”. For that, accidently killing an unarmed man as a law enforcement official, he has been charged and will hopefully be held accountable for his negligence. But what about the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office as a whole? Have their actions up until this point really been on par with a law enforcement agency headed by an elected official and tasked with serving the public good?
Police departments around the country have become very adept at attempting to control public opinion. In the Michael Brown case last August the Ferguson Police Department had access to key evidence long before the media had access to it. Utilizing this dynamic to their favor, they had the ability to conduct calculated PR campaigns that were nothing short of propaganda. For Michael Brown it was “traces of marijuana in his bloodstream” and a video of him in baggy clothes assaulting a convenience store clerk. The Ferguson Police Department leaked this info to the media weeks before the possibly incriminating autopsy report was released and they did so against the wishes of the Department of Justice. The release of this particular video coincided with the release of officer Darren Wilson’s name publicly, allowing the department to easily shift attention away from Wilson and onto Brown, a failing tactic that ultimately lead to another night of rioting after nearly 50 hours of peaceful protest (the longest such stint during that first violent week). They attempted to control the flow of information and thus the media and in turn public opinion. In Eric Harris’ case the propaganda released by the TCSO has been just as egregious.
On April 2nd, mere hours after the shooting, TCSO released their first official statement to the media. In it they deploy talking points that are notoriously used to justify an officer’s use of lethal force. In this case it was the phrases “reaching for his waistband” and “deputies feared for their safety”. But why? Both videos clearly show this was not the case and by their own admission, the shooting was an accident. Why embellish the facts in such a potentially contentious scenario?
Put simply, it is clear that this was nothing more than their PR machine attempting to mitigate any potential public outcry. Pressured by the family and media to release a statement the day of the incident they hastily threw together a series of events that would most likely protect the reputations of the deputies involved. Apparently this was an action they would come to regret. Shortly before the release of edited video footage depicting the sting operation gone awry the TCSO redacted their original press statement removing the character assassination attempts on Harris and the common justification of lethal force phrases. Not only did they remove these phrases from their official statement, they did so without acknowledging the fact that there had been a redaction in the first place, leaving the edited document dated April 2nd.
This is a disturbing trail of events that can be easily tracked first on this Tulsa World Article from April 4th where the original statement has been archived and now on the TCSO press release page where a much shorter, but similar statement is made. Two different narratives of the same event, and no explanation as to why. This in itself should be troublesome for the department in the long run, but you can’t get the full story of how this whole debacle unfolded until you read the official “Narrative of Incident” report penned by Bates himself.
In official documents obtained by Project Freethought, Robert Bates and presumably a team of attorneys and public relations representatives drew out yet another narrative account of that day. Citing emotional distress of the deputy as justification, this report was laid out 5 days after the shooting actually occurred. While this may be a valid delay, it also serves as a very convenient opportunity for officials to get all their “facts” straight and repair the mis-steps they took with their original press statement so that it coincides with the current video footage that has been released.
In the report Bates verifies that the weapon used to kill Harris was his personally owned, snub nosed, Smith and Wesson .357. This is important for two reasons. The first being that a snub nosed .357 looks and feels nothing like the taser he says he thought he was holding and the second being the fact that .357’s are notoriously one of the loudest handguns on the market. This calls into question the departments recent assertion that the other deputies involved hadn’t heard the gunshot. This is an apparent attempt to justify the appalling and inhumane actions of the deputies the Wall Street Journal have now identified as Joseph Byars and Michael Huckeby, one of whom is seen in the video driving a knee into Harris’ head while yelling “Fuck your breath” as the man lay on the pavement pleading for his life. This also calls into question why a man who was accidently shot was not given immediate medical attention by the deputies on scene.
Also in the report Bates suspiciously uses phrases found in the original press statement (pre-redaction) and does so word for word as if he were reading from a script. By his account the day starts in a task force meeting where he is advised that Harris was a “convicted felon” that was a “bad son of a bitch” with “gang affiliations” and should be considered “armed and dangerous”. Although these phrases weren’t all in the initial press release, they serve the same purpose of giving the deputy some leeway as far as justification of lethal force goes. Again, why is this necessary if he’s already admitted that the shooting was an accident? At the time the shot was fired the deputy by definition did not fear for his or the other officers safety to a degree where lethal force was warranted.
From there Bates explains the events leading up to the shooting with some familiar phrases. “At the time I noticed that Harris was running in an unusual way because as he ran he repeatedly touched his right hand to his waistband area on his right side….I believed that Harris might be carrying a gun, which would be consistent with what deputy Ramsey said in the briefing”.
Here again we have a deliberate statement being used for justification of lethal force, by a deputy who has claimed that he accidently shot the suspect in the back. Presumably justification of force is irrelevant in an accidental shooting, but it seems he had to put it in his report anyway because he does so multiple times. It’s reasonable to assume that he had to put this in his report because the Sheriff’s office had already stated it as fact five days prior. Despite the contradictory video evidence and their apparent attempt to hide those discrepancies by redacting their original statement just before they released the videos, the language of justification of force is now something they are wed to.
By re-incorporating this statement and releasing an edited version of events on video, they are assuming this claim will hold water later down the road or at the very least prevent further public outrage until that point. When watching the video footage currently available it is clear that Harris is running in a normal fashion, i.e. not grasping for an imaginary gun in his waistband, which would make these statements dubious at best. As it sits they retain plausible deniability because we cannot know for sure what happened in the 3-5 seconds between when Harris lept from the undercover agents vehicle and when he comes into frame in the second video where we see the chase and shooting occur. What is clear is that Harris is not running like he has gun in his gym shorts and doesn’t “repeatedly touch his right hand to his waistband” as Bates states. If the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office wants the public to believe Bates’ full account then they need to release all pertinent videos, fully and unedited, as requested by multiple media outlets.
As of today they have refused to release unedited and/or additional videos stipulating (as they have before) that the Oklahoma Open Records Act does not apply to an ongoing investigation. This falls directly in line with the lack of transparency we’ve already seen by the Tulsa County Sheriffs Office and only lends credence to the mounting evidence suggesting a targeted media and PR campaign that was ineptly put into place on day one. If they are allowed to continue in this fashion they will no doubt watch from a distance as protests lose momentum, public forums stop and the media moves on to the next news cycle as if nothing had ever happened.
*Shortly after publishing this article the Tulsa World broke a story alleging that some of deputy Robert Bates’ training certifications had been falsified after the shooting and higher ranking officers who refused to falsify these documents were re-assigned because of this insubordination. You can find more on this developing story here.