Less than a week after an unarmed black man was shot dead by a white police officer on a Tulsa street, prosecutors charged the officer with first-degree manslaughter, a decision that may prevent unrest in a city with a long history of tense race relations.
Officer Betty Shelby "reacted unreasonably" when she fatally shot 40-year-old Terence Crutcher on Sept. 16, prosecutors wrote in an affidavit filed with the charge Thursday. Police also quickly provided videos of the shooting to black community leaders and members of Crutcher's family before releasing them to the public.
Crutcher died from a "penetrating gunshot wound of chest," the Oklahoma state medical examiner's office said Friday, classifying his death as a homicide. Spokeswoman Amy Elliott said a full autopsy report and toxicology results are not yet complete.
The swift action in Tulsa stands in contrast to Charlotte, North Carolina, where police refused Thursday under mounting pressure to publicly release video of this week's fatal shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, another black man, and the National Guard was called in after violent protests. Demonstrations in Tulsa since Crutcher's death have been consistently peaceful.
Tulsa Mayor Dewey Bartlett praised the police department for quickly providing evidence to District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler's office.
"These are important steps to ensure that justice and accountability prevails," Bartlett said in a statement, adding the city will "continue to be transparent."
Prosecutors' motivation may have been partly to allay outrage and avoid the kind of violence Charlotte has seen, said Phil Turner, a Chicago-based defense attorney and former federal prosecutor. "But I don't think the charge was only to give the crowd some blood. ... No. I think (prosecutors) must have thought charges were warranted," he said.
If convicted, Shelby faces between four years and life in prison. She was booked in the Tulsa County jail at 1:11 a.m. Friday and released 20 minutes later after posting $50,000 bond, according to jail records.
Crutcher's twin sister, Tiffany Crutcher, said her family is pleased with the charge, but she and her attorneys want a vigorous prosecution that leads to a conviction.
Family attorney Damario Solomon-Simmons said, "the family wants and deserves full justice. Not only for this family, not only for Terence but to be a deterrent for law officers all around this nation to know that you cannot kill unarmed citizens."
Shelby's attorney, Scott Wood, did not immediately respond to telephone messages seeking comment on the charges.
Dashcam and aerial footage of the shooting and its aftermath showed Crutcher walking away from Shelby with his arms in the air. The footage does not offer a clear view of when Shelby fired the single shot.
Her attorney has said Crutcher was not following police commands and that Shelby opened fire when the man began to reach into his SUV window. But Crutcher's family immediately discounted that claim, saying the father of four posed no threat. Police said Crutcher did not have a gun on him or in his vehicle.
The affidavit filed Thursday indicates that Shelby "cleared the driver's side front" of Crutcher's vehicle before she began interacting with him, suggesting she may have known there was no gun on the driver's side of the vehicle.
Shelby told homicide investigators that "she was in fear for her life and thought Mr. Crutcher was going to kill her. When she began following Mr. Crutcher to the vehicle with her duty weapon drawn, she was yelling for him to stop and get on his knees repeatedly," the affidavit said.
Prosecutors offered two possible theories: Shelby killed Crutcher impulsively in a fit of anger or wrongly killed him as she sought to detain him. Lee F. Berlin, a Tulsa-based defense lawyer and a former assistant district attorney in Oklahoma, said prosecutors could present both theories or may decide to move forward with only one and let jurors decide.
Shelby, who joined the Tulsa Police Department in December 2011, was en route to a domestic violence call when she encountered Crutcher's vehicle abandoned in the middle of a city street. Shelby did not activate her patrol car's dashcam, so no footage exists of what happened before other officers arrived.
The footage shows Crutcher approaching the driver's side of the SUV, then more officers walk up and Crutcher appears to lower his hands and place them on the vehicle. A man inside a police helicopter says: "That looks like a bad dude, too. Probably on something."
Police Sgt. Dave Walker has said investigators found a vial of PCP in Crutcher's vehicle. Shelby's attorney has said that Shelby completed drug-recognition expert training and thought Crutcher was acting like he might be under the influence of PCP. Attorneys for Crutcher's family said even if there were drugs in the car, it wouldn't justify the shooting.
In the videos, the officers surround Crutcher, who suddenly drops to the ground. A voice on the police radio says: "Shots fired!" The officers back away and Crutcher is left unattended for about two minutes before an officer attends to him.
Tulsa's troubled race relations dates to the 1921 race riot that left about 300 black residents dead. As recently as 2013, a City Council vote to rename the city's glitzy arts district, which had been named after the son of a Confederate veteran and Ku Klux Klan member, drew vehement opposition.
Earlier this year, a white former volunteer deputy with the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office was sentenced to four years in prison after he was convicted of second-degree manslaughter in the 2015 shooting death of Eric Harris, who was also black and unarmed.
Kunzweiler, the Tulsa prosecutor, emphasized that, "despite the heightened tensions felt by all, which seemingly beg for an emotional response and reaction, our community has consistently demonstrated the willingness to respect the judicial process.