Terence Crutcher's twin sister hopes his death will be the catalyst for police reform
Terence Crutcher was determined to leave his mark on the world. He often told his twin sister that.
"In one of Terence and I's last conversations, he told me, 'Look, sis. I'm going to be like you when I grow up. I'm going to make you proud, and God is going to get the glory out of my life,'" Tiffany Crutcher, a practicing physical therapist in a suburb of Montgomery, Alabama, said in an exclusive sit-down interview with Mic.
At 40, Terence began pursuing a degree in musical appreciation. He wanted to sing and record gospel music. He attended his family's church in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and was involved in its music ministry. That's where he was headed — to church for a music workshop — on the day in September that Tulsa police officer Betty Shelby fatally shot him near his stalled vehicle on a local roadway. Of course, Shelby couldn't have known anything about Crutcher's aspirations.
Instead, Shelby appears to have assumed the worst about Crutcher. She allowed those assumptions to influence a decision to use lethal force against him in a moment when he needed help, Tiffany Crutcher said. That made her actions all the more devastating to the Crutcher family.
On Monday, Shelby's trial begins on a first-degree manslaughter charge. She has said she believed he was reaching for a gun and begged him to obey her commands to freeze and keep his hands visible, but she also feared for her life. Crutcher was unarmed. Of course, Tiffany Crutcher wants to see Shelby convicted. But she is also determined to help her brother keep the promise he made to her. Though she'll never get to buy her brother's debut gospel album, the circumstances of his death will hopefully be catalysts for police reform in Tulsa and across the nation, she said.
Shelby's trial is just one of four trials scheduled in May that involve police officers whose use of lethal force was captured on video in the last two years. Former North Charleston, South Carolina, police officer Michael Slager pleaded guilty on May 2 to a federal criminal civil rights charge, avoiding trial for shooting Walter Scott, who was unarmed, in the back as he fled arrest in April 2015. Slager's federal trial was set to begin this week. Former University of Cincinnati police officer Ray Tensing is due in court on May 25 for retrial on a voluntary manslaughter charge in the 2015 shooting death of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati. On May 30, a trial will open for St. Anthony, Minnesota, police Officer Jeronimo Yanez, who fatally shot Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, in July 2016. Each case intensified calls for policing reform within the fledging Black Lives Matter movement. Those calls haven't lost their fever pitch, even as the Trump administration moves away from an Obama-era push to reduce officers' use of force through reform agreements with police departments.
On Sept. 16, Terence Crutcher was leaving a music appreciation class he'd enrolled in at Tulsa Community College. Under circumstances that are still unclear, the 40-year-old's car became stranded in the middle of a north Tulsa road. Video footage taken from a dash cam, and from a police helicopter's bird's eye view, shows the moment Shelby and other officers encountered Crutcher.
Initially, authorities said Crutcher refused to comply with officers' commands to freeze and keep his hands raised, before he appeared to reach into an open window of his SUV. When the video was released days later, the public learned that Crutcher had actually walked toward his vehicle with his hands raised. He would not have had time to reach into his SUV, from the looks of it in the helicopter footage.
Crutcher is barely touching his vehicle before another Tulsa officer, Tyler Turnbough, stunned him with a stun gun. Shelby then shoots Terence in the chest seconds later. On Sept. 22, the Tulsa County District Attorney's Office charged Shelby with first-degree manslaughter.
The shooting quickly garnered national attention, and not just for the gruesome images of officers firing on the unarmed black man. Recordings of radio chatter from a helicopter operator, as the Tulsa officers closed in on Crutcher, suggested there was implicit bias against him.
"That looks like a bad dude, too. [He] could be on something," a policeman is heard saying.
It's unclear if Shelby heard that remark uttered on the radio before she opened fire. But if she did, Tiffany Crutcher said it's hard to believe that it wouldn't have some impact on her decisions to use lethal force.
"When I heard the helicopter police, the police who was in the helicopter, from way up in the air, say, 'Oh, he looks like one bad dude...' I mean, I just cringed," Tiffany Crutcher said. "To demonize the victim and to say that they are responsible for their own death and things of that nature... it's just appalling that our loved ones are treated like they don't matter."
Terence and Tiffany Crutcher were born three minutes apart to Joey and Leanna Crutcher in Tulsa, on Aug. 16, 1976. Leanna called Terence her "compassionate son," Tiffany said.
"Terence had more friends than all of us," his twin sister said. "He was always bringing someone to the house that may have been in need or was hungry. And my parents fed them."
Crutcher left behind four children: three daughters and a 5-year-old son. Two of his daughters sing in the choir at the family's church in Tulsa.
As a younger man, he'd had run-ins with the law. There had been multiple occasions where police officers had used force during attempts to arrest Crutcher. According to the Tribune News Service, Crutcher served four years in prison on a drug-related conviction, from 2007 to 2011. His father, Joey Terence, reportedly told officers in 2012 that his son struggled with drug addiction.
But none of it was relevant in the moment Terence and Shelby's paths crossed. He wasn't suspected of a crime. Still, they boiled him down to his looks and demeanor, in the midst of an emergency, Tiffany Crutcher said.
During a 60 Minutes interview in April, Shelby spoke in her own defense, describing her encounter with Crutcher and rejecting the notion that his race played a role in her decision to discharge her weapon.
"[Crutcher's] hands are just dropped beside him," Shelby said in the taped interview. "His chin is resting on his chest. And he's standing there motionless. And I thought, 'Hmmm. I wonder if he's on PCP.' ... It was an odd behavior. Zombie-like."
"What I based everything on was his actions, his behaviors," she said. "Race had nothing to do with my decision making."
Tiffany Crutcher doesn't buy Shelby's explanation. "For her to say that Terence was the cause of his own death, oh, my God, that was a tough pill to swallow for my family," she said. "Just some of the things she said, to me, confirmed the need for reform for police officers. It truly exposed the culture of the police officers and what we go through every single day as citizens in areas that are predominantly African-American."
Shelby, 43, joined the Tulsa Police Department in 2011, after more than five years as a deputy in the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office. As a Tulsa police officer, she received four letters of commendation and an award for merit. But she also had two excessive force complaint on her file. Those complaints were reportedly ruled as unfounded.
Only Shelby truly knows what happened on the scene of the shooting, Tiffany Crutcher said. She wants justice for her twin. She also wants to see reforms enacted in Tulsa, including mandatory implicit bias and de-escalation training for officers.
If those things happen, Terence Crutcher will be remembered for more than how he died, she said. The family plans to hold a prayer vigil in Tulsa on Wednesday, with the help of renowned civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton and Trayvon Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump.
"We're going to do rallies," Tiffany Crutcher said. "And we're going to fight all the way to the end. And God has already got the glory out of Terence's life."
In this video below, Tiffany Crutcher reflects on her brother's death: