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by Peter Moskos

April 14, 2015

"You're doin' fine, Oklahoma!" Not.

A 73-year old man, Robert C. Bates, liked to play cops and robbers. He thought he was going to get to Tase a bad guy. But instead of holding his Taser, Bob was holding his personal gun. Bang. You're dead. Oops.

Bates wasn't a real cop. He was a "reserve deputy sheriff," which isn't necessarily a bad concept, within reason. But this isn't reasonable. Bates paid to play. He gave money to the Tulsa County sheriff's election campaign. Maybe he could have been a deputy sheriff without donating money. But he gave cars to the undercover unit to which he had access. And now, irony of ironies, Bates might be convicted based on the evidence provided by the very eye-glass cameras he perhaps gave to the department!

Bates didn't even have good reason to even Tase Eric Harris. Cops were on scene. Harris wasn't getting the upper hand. He wasn't going anywhere. Despite what Bates later said, I do not think Bates thought Harris was armed. I say this because Harris was flying. Booking. Like a man who does not have a gun in his waistband. His arms were pumping, not going to his dip. Not in what I saw. And this is very much contrary to what supposedly "independent consultant" Sgt. Jim Clark claimed while defending Bates after being paid to investigate the shooting.

[And Kudos to the cop who tackled Bates. Good job. He was a fast runner and knew exactly where to tell the driver to stop the car, though the driver was a bit slow in doing so.]

"This horrible situation is going to be about what a corrupt sheriff's office does after a bad shooting," said Daniel Smolen, said a lawyer for the SOB who was shot.

I think Smolen may be right.... wait. Did I just speak bad of the dead? Yeah. And I say this without at all saying the shooting was justified. And I'm certainly not defending an elected sheriff who allowed the guy to be on the scene with a gun. But what a bastard Harris was: Violence. Drugs. Guns. Robbery. Assault on cops. Escape from prison(?!). The whole nine yards. A real life of crime.

I mention this in relation to my Washington Post article in which I describe how cops were so bothered about the shooting of Walter Scott. That one was different. This was a tragedy. A fuck up. And blame can and should be placed. But if you want cops to shed a tear over the death of Eric Harris, you're going to be waiting a long time. Harris was a harbinger of violence and doom.

[Having watched the whole unedited video in the CNN office today, it's unfair to just air the part where cops say bad things to Harris. One line -- "fuck your breath" -- out of context is just a gotcha moment. The media should also show Harris yelling at the cops. Now granted, Harris has just been shot. Maybe you wouldn't like the line even in context, but the context matters. Harris, on the ground after a dangerous chase, is yelling about how he "didn't do shit." This is a man who had just ran from police after selling an illegal gun to an undercover cop. My actual thought when I heard his protests of innocence was, "fuck you!" Though I did manage to just think this and not blurt it out in the middle of a newsroom. I also didn't just have to chase, catch, and restrain this jerk. This situation, to paraphrase Jay-Z, has 99 problems, but the cops' words ain't one.]

Maybe it's because as a police officer you're around of lot of death and even a lot of people murdered. So perhaps it's inevitable to rank order the value of life. It's one way you cope with dealing with a lot of death. An innocent kid is worth more than a guilty adult. A robbery victim's life is worth more than the robber's life. Somebody who could have prevented his own death by complying with lawful orders deserves less sympathy than somebody who didn't run. The death of a guy killed after some minor vehicle violation is more tragic than a long-time felon who dies after running and selling undercover cops a gun. Somebody killed with intent is different than somebody killed in an accident. And both of those deaths would be different than somebody who happens to die as a result of less-lethal force.

So Bates had a Taser. And I think Bates wanted to use his toy. Oh, boy! I suspect moments like this were exactly why Bates had given so much to the Tulsa County Sheriff. He wanted to play cop. Bates and the Tulsa County Sheriff's Department have made a mockery out of professional policing. Clearly Bates should not have have had a gun and a Taser.

Let us not start to consider "slip and capture" (a term I had forgotten before today) justification for using a gun instead of a Taser. Yeah, apparently it is possible to hold and fire a gun that you think is a Taser. "Slip and capture" reminds me of the invented concept "excited delirium," which to some people means it's OK when people die after getting tased. Just because you give something a name doesn't make it real, or defensible. At best, "slip an capture" is a description. Bates, from everything he said before and after firing one round, obviously did not intend to shoot and kill Harris. But that doesn't make it OK. And with proper training you don't do it.

And it's interesting to note that both in this case and the shooting of Walter Scott in South Carolina (and the shooting of Oscar Grant on the Fruitvale BART platform), that these victims would be alive if the cops (or, "cop" in the Oklahoma case) had not been armed with a Taser. I've never been a big Taser fan. I wonder if this is something to consider. There's particularly irony in people being killed because officers have less-lethal weaponry. (Not running from cops is also a wise preservation strategy, though that didn't help Grant.)

Finally, let me observe that I don't know much about Oklahoma except a song (and the history and meaning of "Sooner"). But maybe Oklahoma is not "doin' fine."

Oklahoma (together with fair New Mexico) has the highest rate of police-involved killing in the nation! The rate at which people are being killed by police in Oklahoma is twice the national average and five times the rate in New York or Michigan. Five times higher? That's a big difference. It's also the subject of my next post.


Dave in IL said...


Good Analysis. What the hell is a reserve doing on a sting? I mean, he's not even Steven "I'm just a cook" Segal for Christ's sake! Sure sheriff, the insurance CEO's donations didn't give him special access at all. We believe ya! Wonder how many broke-ass reserve deputies worked on these kind of operations?

Also, I share your low opinion of the Taser. They were marketed poorly in the first place. Also, IMHO, they have been used to punish, rather than to neutralize active threats, more than PD's would care to admit.

As we've discussed in the past, my background is private sector, mainly healthcare security. At present, it sounds like my department is going to be issuing pepper ball guns in the near future (think paint ball guns with searing hot Cayenne pepper balls). I've done a little research and I believe they have advantages over both traditional OC and the Taser.

Hospitals have been very, very slow to come around, but it is getting hard for even the most oblivious administrator to ignore the violence occurring in healthcare settings (see data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the Emergency Nurses Association). So, I'd be interested to hear your opinion on this less-lethal device.

Anonymous said...

Has anyone thought of redesigning the Taser so that it's ergonomically completely different from a gun? Like maybe make it straight, like a Star Trek Next Gen phaser, and have a thumb switch or something? Then you would have to learn two totally different 'muscle memories.' Which might make you think, "hey, why isn't the thumb switch working? Oh, right, because that's the hammer of my real gun...."

Peter Moskos said...

Good points, all.

That Fuzzy Bastard said...

Anonymously sourced, but it's looking like the PD had been covering for this big donor for some time: http://www.cnn.com/2015/04/16/us/tulsa-shooting-robert-bates-training/index.html

Once again, the root problem is not police (or wannabe police) who use excessive force. It's a police culture that covers up for them.