Al Sharpton is at it again, doing what he does best: misrepresenting facts and mobilizing crowds. The man known as Reverend Al is demanding the arrest of police officers in Charlotte and Tulsa for their roles in the recent shooting deaths of blacks who were resisting arrest. In Charlotte, blacks rioted for three nights over the death of Keith Scott, a hardcore felon. That the cop who shot him also was black, and with apparent justification, was insignificant to the rioters. In Tulsa, a prosecutor charged a white female cop with first-degree manslaughter in the fatal shooting of Terence Crutcher, a heavy PCP user. In the face of this, Sharpton and his ally, Benjamin Crump (in photo), part of the Crutcher family legal team, are insisting on what amounts to an abandonment of due process. Meanwhile, a federal civil rights probe is underway.
The script is familiar: Al Sharpton, now the nation’s leading “civil rights” leader, receives word of a crime with racial implications. He then gets to work, applying his guiding assumptions – blacks are entitled to a presumption of innocence and whites are not – in an effort to shift the tide of criminal justice and public opinion. As a clergyman, politician and media personality, Sharpton has a large and overwhelmingly black audience. My book, Sharpton: A Demagogue’s Rise, published early last year, explains how he and his New York City-based nonprofit group, National Action Network, has succeeded in transforming black collective grievance, however ill-informed, into a heavily corporate-funded political program. That his campaigns have been built on an edifice of lies and omissions has not deterred him, his associates or his followers. In their frame of reference, if a cop, especially a white one, is accused of assaulting or murdering a black suspect, the accusation must be taken at face value. Even if the officer had acted to save his own life, prosecution must proceed. The besmirching of the reputation of an innocent cop and/or his department is somehow an acceptable price for securing justice. Sharpton and like-minded activists, especially the youthful social media-driven network of demagogues known as Black Lives Matter, in the last few years have applied this twisted logic in Baltimore, Ferguson (Mo.), Minneapolis, New York City and North Charleston (S.C.) in an effort to railroad innocent police officers into prison. It is a stroke of good fortune that this misguided activism has yet to produce criminal convictions.
Al Sharpton and his minions remain determined to score convictions. And they now have ample opportunities in the wake of a fatal police shooting of a black male in Charlotte, Keith Scott, on September 20 and of another black male in Tulsa, Terence Crutcher, on September 16. In Charlotte, the aftermath was rioting, or as many news outlets would have it, “protests.” In Tulsa, the aftermath was a manslaughter charge issued by an Oklahoma prosecutor. The Reverend Al has vented on these deaths. In the Charlotte case, Sharpton remarked on MSCBC’s “Morning Joe” program two weeks ago: “I think that a lot of people are missing that we have a race problem in the country and we have a policing problem.” He wasn’t impressed that the cop who shot Keith Scott to death was himself black:
In Charlotte, we’re dealing with black policemen that (sic) shot and killed the man that we are seeing the protests over. So this is a policing issue. We are kind of like meshing it all together. When you’re dealing with a policing problem, even black cops behave in a black community differently than they would in another community.
Accompanied by members of Terence Crutcher’s family, and their attorney Benjamin Crump, Sharpton, speaking at a press conference at National Action Network headquarters in Harlem, called for punishing Tulsa cops, and seemingly as many as possible:
The first-degree manslaughter charges against this officer are a swift step in the right direction as we pursue justice in the death of Terence Crutcher. But we also look forward to a further investigation of all officers at the scene when this tragedy occurred and we are anxious to know whether the conduct of these other officers will be subject to disciplinary actions or legal proceedings.
Don’t try and smear this young man in death as you smeared his blood on that highway. We demand immediate justice! There ought to be an immediate trial, and an immediate trying of the evidence, and stop the judicial stalling! Because justice delayed is justice denied.
This sort of rhetoric is vintage Sharpton, ever cherry-picking his facts to justify a preordained conclusion. A rigorous examination of each case, however, reveals no basis for prosecution. If anything, public scrutiny should be focused on federal and state officials apparently unwilling to stand by local police who risk their lives protecting the public. So let’s have a detailed look at each story line.
Charlotte, a city of 800,000, until recently was relatively free of racial strife. Last month it underwent a baptism of fire. For three straight nights, beginning during the wee hours of Wednesday, September 21, the city’s downtown and surrounding areas effectively were under mob rule. Hundreds, if not thousands, of blacks committed acts of assault, theft and property destruction. They also blocked traffic along Interstate 85, Interstate 277 and nearby thoroughfares; smashed windows and/or looted numerous businesses, including Walmart, CVS, the Charlotte Hornets NBA basketball team store, and Hampton, Hilton and Hyatt hotels; vandalized the NASCAR Hall of Fame and the Charlotte Convention Center; and set fires, threw rocks and stole cash from ATM machines. For good measure, rioters also assaulted three reporters from local CBS television affiliate WBTV and a reporter from CNN. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory declared a state of emergency that day, ordering some 3,500 National Guardsmen, plus any number of State Highway Patrol officers, to the scene. Charlotte Mayor Jennifer Roberts imposed a citywide curfew that lasted from midnight to 6 A.M. on September 22. In all, roughly two dozen police officers and nine civilians were injured. At least 44 persons were arrested. One civilian, a 26-year-old black rioter, Justin Carr, was shot to death by a fellow rioter; police on September 23 arrested a suspect, Rayquan Borum, also black.
The precipitating event in all this was the fatal shooting by a local cop of a gun-toting black, Keith Lamont Scott. Yet one would have great difficulty making the charge of “racism” stick. The officer in question, Brentley Vinson, is black. So is his boss, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Kerr Putney. Neither fact mattered to the rioters or their supporters, convinced that this was a racially motivated homicide. As one prominent enabler, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., fresh from a Democratic Party presidential run, remarked of the riots days later on CBS-TV’s “Face the Nation”: “The younger people…more than any generation in American history, are sick and tired of discrimination and racism.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who did get the party nomination, put in an appearance at an Arkansas black church this past Sunday. Standing at the pulpit of Little Rock AME Zion Church, Mrs. Clinton waxed maudlin: “It has been 12 days since Mr. Scott was shot and killed. Twelve days since his wife, Rakeyia Scott, watched her husband die, and seven children lost their father. We don’t yet know all the details about the shooting, but we do know this community and this family is in pain.” While such opportunists are entitled to their conceits, the full details reveal a far different picture.
Keith Lamont Scott led a troubled life during his 43 years on earth. A shopping mall security guard and father of seven, Scott had a criminal history, and a lengthy one at that. Back in 1992, barely into adulthood, Scott was charged in Charleston County, S.C., with several crimes, including carrying a concealed weapon, simple assault and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He pleaded guilty to all charges. In addition, he was charged that year with aggravated assault. Three years later, in 1995, he was charged with assault with the intent to kill. Both charges were reduced, though the eventual disposition remains unclear. A new decade would see a continuation of old habits. In April 2004, Mr. Scott was convicted of misdemeanor assault with a deadly weapon in Mecklenburg County, N.C. He got off lucky. He also had been charged in that incident with felony assault with a deadly weapon; misdemeanor assault on a child under age 12; and assault on a female. Scott then changed his venue, but not his behavior. In Bexar County, Texas in March 2005, Scott was sentenced to 15 months of incarceration for evading arrest. And in July of that year, he was sentenced to seven years in prison for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (he’d shot another man). He served six years before being released in 2011. Scott later returned back to the Charlotte area, apparently not having learned much. According to police records, his wife, the aforementioned Rakeyia Scott, obtained a restraining order against him last October. She wrote of her husband: “He carries a 9mm black.” She threw in this revealing comment: “He says he is a killer and we should know that.” A couple weeks ago, events would bear this assertion out.
It was Tuesday, September 20, a little before 4 P.M. on the parking lot of the Village at College Downs, an apartment complex near the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Four police officers, one plainclothes and the other three uniformed, were on the scene searching for a suspect with an outstanding arrest warrant in an unrelated case. During their visit, the officers noticed an individual inside a white SUV pulling up and parking alongside them. That person was Keith Scott. The cops observed him rolling a marijuana “blunt” (i.e., cigar), but decided that apprehending the intended suspect had a higher priority. Not long after, Officer Brentley Vinson observed Scott hold up a gun. Priorities changed. The cops believed they had probable cause to make an arrest. Two or more of the officers left the immediate area to retrieve equipment and put on “marked duty vests” to indicate their status as cops. They then returned.
Scott remained inside his car with his gun visible. The cops, standing outside his car, identified themselves as police officers. They then gave an order: “Drop the weapon.” Scott refused. They issued the same command several more times. Scott refused each time. Police Chief Putney explained: “The officers gave loud, clear verbal commands which were also heard by many of the witnesses.” A uniformed officer tried to break Scott’s passenger window with his baton. Scott responded by getting out of his vehicle and walking backward from the vehicle, gun in hand. At that point, Officer Vinson fired off fours shots at Scott, hitting him at least once. Police “immediately rendered first aid and requested Medic to respond to the scene.” The effort was too late. Keith Scott died Thursday in a Charlotte hospital.
That would not be the end of the story. Two police cameras, one mounted on the dashboard and the other on the body of an officer, had been recording much of this sequence of events. Civil rights activists, led by the American Civil Liberties Union and Rev. William J. Barber II, president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP and head of the national organization’s legislative political action committee, called for police to release all footage. Though at first reluctant, police announced the release on September 24, following the riots. The dashboard camera revealed two officers “taking up positions behind a pickup truck” and shouting commands at Scott while the latter was inside his car. The body camera showed police aiming their guns at Scott, but not during the shooting. Audio from the bodycam was absent until after Scott was shot, as the officer had not activated it until 30 seconds after arriving at the scene. To make a long story short, the camera footage, though not necessarily exonerating the police, in and of itself does not justify a prosecution.
Keith Lamont Scott’s surviving family members have their own story. They are claiming that when confronted by police he was in his car unarmed, reading a book while waiting for his son to be dropped off by a school bus. The cops could not find any book. But as Scott lay prone after being shot, they did find a loaded gun and an ankle holster on him. According to unnamed sources, he had bought the gun from a suspect in a burglary case. The gun, moreover, previously had been reported as stolen. A police lab analysis found Scott’s DNA and fingerprints on the weapon. A daughter of Scott, unconvinced, posted a Facebook Live video accusing police of shooting her father because he was black and of planting evidence at the scene. Neither accusation appears credible. Officer Vinson, as mentioned earlier, was black. And even if he was white, that alone would not constitute proof of any racial motive. As for planted evidence, none has been found. Scott family attorney Justin Bamberg asserts that Scott was involved in a “very bad accident approximately a year ago, suffered some pretty severe bodily injuries, suffered some head trauma.” Yet he did not elaborate.
The case for filing homicide charges looked pretty thin, but a good many blacks were bent on payback. Aided by Twitter and other social media, they took to the streets. Around 1:30 A.M., Wednesday, September 21, roughly nine hours after the shooting, police emergency operators began receiving a flood of phone calls from frightened motorists that black mobs were pounding on their cars. One female passenger stuck in traffic at W.T. Harris Boulevard and North Tryon Street told a dispatcher: “I’m trapped. They’re all in the street…Oh my God, they’re coming!” Many “unarmed” negro demonstrators were climbing on cars. With about 50 stranded vehicles around her, she had no means of escape. Not long after, calls streamed in from Interstate 85. A woman from Georgia, traveling with husband, two sons and the family dog, reported that a rock had shattered their windshield. “I’m still stuck in this,” she said. “I would like to get out of it before I pull over.” The dispatcher replied: “I don’t want you to stop there, period. Just follow traffic and get out of the area.” Thankfully, she was able to do just that. Calls from truckers also came in. In several cases, rioters were looting trailer cargo. Here’s how one trucker put it: “They’re breaking into my truck, the mob out here,” he reported. “I can’t move. There’s a whole mob of people. I’m not kidding. Yep, they’re taken everything. They’ve got the whole road blocked.” This scene played itself out a second night and, less traumatically, on a third.
Those pointing the finger at the police frequently note that some of the protests were peaceful and that whites joined blacks. The NAACP’s William Barber II proudly wrote of this rainbow of dissent: “This is what democracy looks like.” The protestors, he asserted, “show us a way forward to peace and justice.” Such claims are unconvincing. Whether it is a majority or a minority of people who want police railroaded into prison, or whether the protests were all-black or multiracial, is irrelevant. A functioning criminal justice system requires a rational examination of all potential sources of evidence, independent of outside pressure. Investigations must be allowed to proceed without being beholden to an ideological army. The U.S. Department of Justice, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department, in fact, each have launched investigations. The Justice Department seems to view the rioters as promoting a righteous cause, but with the wrong methods. After the first night of rioting, Attorney General Loretta Lynch issued this statement: “I urge those responsible for bringing violence to these demonstrations to stop because you’re drowning out the voices of commitment and change, and you’re ushering in more tragedy and grief in our communities.” It will be a while before things sort themselves out.
That brings us to Tulsa, where Terence Crutcher, a 40-year-old black male and a father of four, was fatally shot on September 16 by a white female police officer, Betty Shelby. The incident was captured from above by a police helicopter video. The city of 400,000 was spared subsequent rioting, but the case remains on the national radar screen. Part of the reason is that this April, a white 73-year-old Tulsa County volunteer deputy sheriff, Bob Bates, was sentenced to four years in prison for second-degree manslaughter in the death of a 44-year-old black male suspect, Eric Courtney Harris. On September 22, perhaps influenced by the Charlotte crisis as well as by black activists in Tulsa, County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler charged her with first-degree manslaughter. Evidence indicates the action was premature and very likely unjustified.
A little after 7:30 P.M., Friday, September 16, Tulsa police received a pair of “911” calls about an abandoned Lincoln Navigator in the middle of 36th Street North just west of Lewis Avenue. For whatever reason, the engine was running and the doors were wide open. One caller stated: “It’s an SUV. It’s like in the middle of the street. It’s blocking traffic. There was a guy running from it, saying it was going to blow up. But I think he’s smoking something. I got out and was like, ‘Do you need help?’ He was like, Come here, I think it’s going to blow up.” The other caller observed: “There is a car that looks like somebody just jumped out of it and left it in the center of the road on 36th Street North and North Lewis Avenue…The driver-side door is open like somebody jumped out. It’s on the yellow line, blocking traffic. Nobody in the car.” Police were wholly justified in responding to the calls. Removal of an abandoned vehicle in the middle of a thoroughfare is a matter of public safety. And according to eyewitnesses, Crutcher had driven his car directly into oncoming traffic before stopping it and getting out.
Two police officers, Betty Shelby and Tyler Turnbough, both white, arrived at the scene. Somewhere around 90 seconds to two minutes later, a police helicopter arrived, hovering over the proceedings. According to police, Crutcher was acting highly erratically. He repeatedly had been reaching into his pockets and keeping his hands there. He then walked toward the Navigator despite being told to stop. Upon reaching the vehicle, he appeared to be reaching inside, although Crutcher’s attorneys assert that the windows were closed. The cops feared Crutcher was going for a gun. During this time, the helicopter officers had a conversation going. Their dialogue included this observation: “This guy’s still walking. He isn’t following commands.” And this one: “It’s time for a taser, I think.” Plus this: “I’m kind of thinking that’s (i.e., a taser) about to happen. That looks like a bad dude, too, maybe on something.” Moments later, Officer Shelby shot the suspect from the front and Officer Turnbough tased the suspect. A couple minutes later, an officer called for an ambulance. Crutcher was rushed to a local hospital, but it was too late. He died that evening. Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan said no weapon was recovered from Terence Crutcher’s body or vehicle.
Here was a seemingly plausible case for prosecution. Chief Jordan, after reviewing dashcam and helicopter video footage, termed the sequence “disturbing” and “difficult to watch.” On September 20, the Tulsa Police Department, after placing Officers Shelby and Turnbough on paid administrative leave, announced it had begun a criminal investigation. On September 22, Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler charged Shelby with first-degree manslaughter. The next morning, Shelby turned herself in to the Tulsa County Jail, where she was booked and released after posting $50,000 bail. She was charged with “unlawfully and unnecessarily” shooting Crutcher after the suspect did not comply with her “lawful orders.” On that latter day, the Oklahoma State Medical Examiner’s Office concluded from its preliminary investigation that Crutcher’s death was a homicide caused by a gunshot wound to the chest. The U.S. Justice Department, meanwhile, already had gotten into the act on September 19, announcing it had opened a probe of the incident for civil rights violations. Dozens of protestors, led by the Tulsa chapter of Black Lives Matter, gathered at the county courthouse to demand prosecutions. Civil rights advocates nationwide were convinced they had a moral smoking gun.
On closer inspection, however, the case for homicide charges is weak. For one thing, there is the matter of Terence Crutcher’s criminal record. And yes, he had one. Back in 1996, barely out of his teens, he was charged with shooting with the intent to kill, though the charge was dismissed. Mr. Crutcher after that seemed to behave himself – at least for a while. In 2001, he was convicted of petty larceny. Then, in each of 2004, 2005 and 2006, he was convicted of driving with a suspended driver’s license; the 2005 conviction included resisting a police officer. Things got worse in 2006. Crutcher was convicted of drug trafficking, a case that also included a (dismissed) charge of assaulting a police officer. While serving his sentence, he was charged and convicted with public intoxication. He was convicted in 2012 on the same charge, plus obstructing an officer. In 2013, he was convicted of driving under the influence (DUI) and resisting an officer. And that’s not the whole story. On August 30 of this year, less than three weeks prior to his death, authorities had issued warrants for Crutcher’s arrest on charges of drug trafficking, public intoxication, DUI and resisting a police officer.
Family members of Terence Crutcher claim that he was “turning his life around.” That familiar refrain, by now a virtual comedy one-liner, doesn’t appear to hold water. Quite aside from Crutcher’s outstanding arrest warrants, the details of his fatal encounter suggest that his behavior, very likely drug-induced – a toxicology report remains pending – had everything to his death. The initial impression among cops at the scene that Crutcher was high, far from being speculation, appears accurate. Officer Shelby, who in fact had received special training in drug behavior recognition, told her attorney that the suspect exhibited signs of being under the influence of PCP (phencyclidine). Indeed, Crutcher’s own father had admitted in a 2012 affidavit – four years earlier – that his son had a history of PCP use.
Let’s understand a few things about PCP. Initially synthesized in the 1920s, it came into widespread use as an anesthetic during the 1950s. Due to unwanted side effects, it is now rarely used for surgery, and then only for veterinary purposes. Though still legally available in small doses for research and testing, for all intents and purpose it is manufactured illegally. The drug is available in powder, capsule, liquid, crystal or tablet form. Either way, it has short-term and long-term effects. Though formally a sedative, it also has highly hallucinogenic properties capable of producing severe changes in behavior, and in visual and auditory perception. Short-term effects kick in anywhere from two minutes to an hour, depending on size of dosage and method of ingestion. And they can last anywhere from four hours to 48 hours. These effects include numbness, slurred speech, loss of motor coordination, an exaggerated sense of one’s own strength and invulnerability, and generally erratic behavior. In high doses, they include seeing and hearing imaginary phenomena, extreme anxiety and panic, breathing problems, raised body temperature, and dangerously high blood pressure and heart rate. As for long-term effects, the most common signs are impaired memory, inhibited speech, inhibited problem-solving abilities, paranoia, flashbacks to prior events, and continuous hallucinations. Here is how one respected medical source describes the behavior of a person high on PCP (words in bold type are the author’s):
Perhaps deservedly so, PCP has developed a very negative reputation based on reports of what can happen to those under the influence of the drug. People are more likely to act aggressively or violently against others or themselves. The incidence of such behaviors may be more common in people with a history of mental health issues.
People using PCP often overestimate their abilities or think themselves impervious to harm, which can lead to accidental injuries and death. For example, someone will think they can cross a street quickly enough to avoid the traffic, only to be hit by a car.
While using PCP, people may misinterpret and distort calm situations as confrontational and respond with violence, and since they are perceiving pain inaccurately, the violence could end with serious physical injuries.
All of this bears a strong resemblance to the behavior of Terence Crutcher during the last minutes of his life. And that’s the opinion of the person who shot him.
Officer Betty Shelby, speaking through her attorney, Scott Wood, stated that when she first saw Crutcher, he was screaming that his car was “on fire” and about to blow up. Shelby was the first Tulsa police officer to arrive, but she wasn’t responding to the “911,” noted Wood. She actually had been on her way to a domestic violence call when she encountered Crutcher standing near his car that was blocking traffic. Crutcher seemed drug-impaired. As Shelby was trained to recognize the signs of such behavior, she pulled her cruiser over, stopped, and got out. She then asked Crutcher, “Hey, is this your car?” Crutcher did not respond, drooping head in the process. The suspect then put his hand in his left pocket. Officer Shelby responded to this gesture: “Hey, please keep your hands out of your pocket while you’re talking to me. Let’s deal with this car.” Again, Crutcher did not respond. Officer Shelby then ordered him to get his hand out of his pocket. He then pulled his hands away and put his hands up in the air, even though he was not instructed to do so.
Officer Shelby then tried to coax Crutcher into talking to her. Crutcher, however, responded with a stare and unintelligible mumbling. He then turned and walked to the edge of the roadway and turned to look at her, his hands still in the air. Then he put his hands down and started to reach into his pocket again. Shelby responded, once again, by ordering him to get his hands out of his pocket. It was at this point, she later recalled, that she sensed the suspect was “on something,” possibly PCP. She then radioed into the dispatcher that she had a suspect “who is not following commands.” Her lawyer stated, “You can kind of hear a degree of stress in her voice when she says that.” Believing Crutcher had a gun, Officer Shelby then pulled out her gun and commanded Crutcher several times to drop to his knees. Rather than comply, the suspect walked toward his SUV with his hands up. The orders apparently could not be heard from the dashcam video, which began just as another patrol car pulled up the scene. Shelby followed him with her weapon drawn.
Here is where the confrontation reached its tragic climax. According to the helicopter video, Crutcher was angling toward his vehicle while Officer Shelby repeatedly ordered him to halt. His hands were still in the air. “As a police officer,” said Shelby’s attorney days later, “you have to wonder – why would someone ignore commands at gunpoint to get to a certain location?” Suddenly, Crutcher lowered his arms, turned to face the car, and reached into the driver’s side window with his left hand. At that moment, Officer Shelby fired off a fatal shot at Crutcher. Barely a second later, Officer Turnbough used his taser gun on the suspect. During an interview with homicide detectives, Shelby said she had good reason to believe that Crutcher had intended to reach into his SUV to retrieve a weapon. “I was never so scared in my life as in that moment right then,” she recalled. And as an appropriate postscript, a Tulsa police source, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that a substance recovered inside Crutcher’s vehicle tested positive for PCP.
The evidence from the Charlotte and Tulsa shootings point to one conclusion: The deaths were not the result of criminal behavior. Al Sharpton and other self-styled civil rights leaders, in their haste to see police as the oppressors and blacks as the oppressed, have ignored any number of central facts. Any federal or state prosecution faces a high hurdle. Back in 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Connor that police officers who use force in a given situation must be judged according to the full range of circumstances leading up to the application of the force. Moreover, any prosecution of cops must meet a standard of “objective reasonableness.” The central guiding question must be: Would a similarly trained law enforcement officer in an identical set of circumstances have reacted the same way? In each of these situations, the answer so far is “yes.” Any honest prosecutor would have conclude, given the evidence before them, that trained cops would have reacted in the same ways that Officer Brentley Vinson (Charlotte) and Officer Betty Shelby (Tulsa) did.
Meanwhile, America’s city streets have gotten more dangerous over the last year or two. According to FBI Uniform Crime Reports data released last week, there were around 1,500 more firearm-related murders in the U.S. in 2015 than in 2014. That translates to a 10.8 percent hike, the highest since 1971. The increase was especially concentrated in black neighborhoods in about 10 cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, Houston, Milwaukee and Washington, D.C. This reverses a two-decades-long downward trend. The misplaced activism of groups such as National Action Network, the NAACP and Black Lives Matter has more than a little to do with this. These people are oblivious to the fact that blacks are getting killed as well as doing the killing. Moral and legal enablers of street criminals are not doing anyone a favor by punishing police for doing their job.