Tulsa Oklahoma, where I live, has been roiled this past week by the killing of an unarmed black man and father of four, Terence Crutcher, by Tulsa Police officer Betty Shelby who was charged Thursday with first-degree manslaughter. Crutcher was thought to be high on PCP during the confrontation after his car broke down, and was found to have traces of the drug in his vehicle.
Tulsa District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler said during a news conference that Officer Shelby “reacted unreasonably by escalating the situation from a confrontation with Mr. Crutcher, who was not responding to verbal commands and was walking away from her with his hands held up, becoming emotionally involved to the point that she overreacted.”
The Crutcher killing is part of a nationwide epidemic of police shootings, which most media pundits and political activists consider to be rooted in racial discrimination.
The militarization of American domestic police forces is also a significant factor that should receive greater public opprobrium.
According to news reports, Betty Shelby trained with the Air National Guard in the late 1990s before joining the Tulsa Police Department as a drug recognition expert, and her husband, Dave Shelby, who flew in an overhead helicopter during the Crutcher killing, was an Iraq War veteran.
The Tulsa Police Department from 1990 to 2014, according to a study undertaken by the Marshall Foundation, also significantly received over $700,000 in military equipment through the Pentagon’s 1033 Program, and the Sherriff’s office another $817,681.
Military-trained officers in Tulsa are thus equipped with military weapons fighting a war against drugs in which they are conditioned to view potential suspects as enemies. Ms. Shelby’s overreaction can probably best be understood in this context and not necessarily as a product of her being a racist.
Police video from the Crutcher killing shows one of the helicopter operators, possibly Dave Shelby, telling Ms. Shelby over the radio that Crutcher “looks like a bad dude.”
He may have appeared so because he was black, but when conditioned in a military mindset, all suspects are “bad dudes” to be treated accordingly.
The militarization of American police forces goes back a long way. The father of American law enforcement, August Vollmer, credited with introducing important technical and scientific innovations, was a veteran of the Spanish-American Philippines War. Many other veterans of that conflict came back to impart mass surveillance techniques they had pioneered while chasing Filipino guerrillas.
During the Cold War, American police advisers tasked with training their protégés in clandestine surveillance and to assist in counterinsurgency operations in countries like Vietnam came back to advance methods domestically that devalued civil liberties, contributing to the trend towards militarization.
Arthur Brandstatter Jr. who headed a controversial police training project in South Vietnam advised the Detroit police in riot control methods that contributed to the violent suppression of black protestors during the city’s infamous 1967 riots.
The declaration of the War on Drugs by the Nixon administration in 1971 tipped the edge unequivocally in the direction of police militarization over support for civil liberties in the United States.
Benefiting from new no-knock measures passed by the conservative Supreme Court, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) in conjunction with local law enforcement carried out militarized raids that resembled “assaults on an enemy prison camp in Vietnam” according to a reporter who witnessed the shooting of an unarmed hippie in the back during a raid in Humboldt County California.
During the 1990s, as part of the War on Drugs, Bill Clinton appointed as drug czar General Barry McCaffrey, a Vietnam and Gulf War I veteran, who instituted a “troops to cops” program which subsidized police departments for hiring returning veterans. According to sociologist Peter Kraska, many of these veterans had little patience for carrying out the painstaking detective work necessary to make a case but “just like to play war; they get a rush out of search and destroy missions.”
New Haven Police Chief Nick Pastore subsequently told a reporter in reference to the Pentagon’s 1033 program that outfitting cops in battle garbs “feeds a mindset that you’re not a police officer serving a community, you’re a soldier at war.”
Information brought out during the trial will enable us to better assess the extent to which Betty Shelby and her husband Dave’s military background and the militarization of Tulsa’s police force more broadly, contributed to the Crutcher killing.
Americans overall must confront not only the racism underlying the rash of police killings today, but also the cancer of unbridled militarism which has contributed to our republic evolving ever more into a police state.
Jeremy Kuzmarov is J.P. Walker assistant professor of history at the University of Tulsa and author of Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation Building in the American Century (University of Massachusetts Press, 2012) and The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs (University of Massachusetts, 2009).