There are starkly different experiences for those who encounter law enforcement in this country. There are those who stand with, or even above the law — people who routinely evade accountability, who leave these encounters unscathed. Then there are Black people.
It has been six years since my brother, Terence Crutcher, was killed during an incident with former Tulsa Police Department (TPD) officer Betty Shelby. Six years of advocacy, six years of pain and trauma, six years of reminding the world with every breath that Terence’s life mattered. Six years without justice.
The Department of Justice must reopen Terence’s case and others like it — closed during the Trump administration — so that my family and others across the country can get the justice that they deserve.
Terence’s vehicle stalled on the road. He simply needed help. He was stranded, looking for assistance to get home to his four children. Terence was unarmed when he was held at gunpoint, tased and shot. Despite the police officers’ oath to serve and protect, no aid was rendered to Terence for over two minutes.
Shelby was acquitted of manslaughter charges in May 2017. Following her acquittal, she was assigned to desk duty. Not long after, she resigned from the Tulsa Police Department. The following year, she began teaching classes to officers on “how to survive the aftermath of a critical incident” — based on an incident Terence did not survive.
In many ways, these details mirror high-profile law enforcement interactions with Black people in America writ large. Terence, like Breonna Taylor, Amir Locke and countless other Black and brown people whose lives were cut short during police incidents, was unarmed and did not pose an immediate threat — but officers still perceived him that way. In the audio of the police footage of Terence’s killing, he’s clearly referred to by an officer as a “bad dude”.
This is a familiar sequence for many families that have lost loved ones to police. We wait years and years — we fight, speak and go to meetings — we continue to remind the world that our loved ones are gone forever, only to be told that their rights did not matter in the face of the power of law enforcement. To be told that these deaths are, technically, legal. While we fight, officers who are protected under the banner of unions and expansive laws have the privilege to continue living their lives with few consequences and some blame everyone but themselves for the incidents.
The Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation into Terence’s killing during President Barack Obama’s administration; this investigation was closed during Donald Trump’s presidency, under an administration notorious for its actions to diminish civil rights and police accountability.
The abrupt closure of the case — during a time when the Justice Department began turning away from pattern-and-practice investigations and curbed the use of consent decrees, emboldening officers to act lawlessly — does little to assure our family that a thorough, diligent investigation was conducted. Without a reopening of the investigation by the Department of Justice, there will be no opportunity for accountability.
The conditions and police culture that led to Terence’s killing continue to exist today. And the accountability lapses that allow officers to kill and simply go on about their lives with minimal repercussions remain in place. The Biden administration’s Justice Department is in a unique position to do what the Trump administration failed to do. It must live up to its name and bring justice to Terence and others whose civil rights cases were closed during the previous administration by reopening the case and, to protect Black Tulsans, the department must conduct a pattern-or-practice investigation into the Tulsa Police Department.
Six years have passed, and one thing is clear: We and the other families mourning the victims of police killings have waited long enough. The Department of Justice must reopen civil rights cases closed during the Trump administration and restore the checks and balances designed to hold police officers and departments accountable across the country.
Tiffany Crutcher is the founder and executive director of the Terence Crutcher Foundation.