The story is painfully familiar—an unarmed black man was shot by a white police officer. But the police officer who shot Terence Crutcher was a woman, a rarity among both the police force and in media-covered police shootings. In the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice and and other unarmed black men shot by police officers in America, the shooter has been reliably male. Does Betty Shelby’s gender change the dynamic of police violence? In short—no.
Officer Betty Shelby shot and killed Terence Crutcher last week after he stopped his car in the middle of the road. She has been charged with manslaughter.
There is evidence for and against both parties in the shooting. Police found PCP in Crutcher’s car, though whether Crutcher was under the influence during the shooting has yet to be released. Shelby has a history of excessive force complaints.
The New York Times ran an article on Saturday titled, “Rarity of Tulsa Shooting: Female Officers are Almost Never Involved.” The article questions whether women are quicker to engage in the use of force because of their smaller stature, or if they are less likely to use force because of less testosterone and better personal skills.
Neither of these options are correct. Some women are more likely to use force than some men. Some men are more likely to use force than some women. To generalize based on sex is unhelpful and meaningless, especially with such a small sample size as female police shooters.
In analyzing this event, it is important to keep in mind that both Crutcher and Shelby visibly belong to oppressed groups—Crutcher as a person of color and Shelby as a woman. This is not a contest of who is more or less privileged; rather, it is a recognition of how privilege affected the situation.
Sexism may be at play in the trial of Betty Shelby, but turning her into the victim of this situation is the wrong approach. As a member of the police force, a patriarchal power system, Betty Shelby is in fact very protected by society. Focusing on her sex or gender takes the focus away from what is truly important—the continued violence against people of color.
Given all the press regarding Shelby’s gender, it seems society has forgotten that a member of an oppressed group can still act oppressively towards other groups. Or perhaps—and this should come as a shock to absolutely no one—the media would rather focus on a white woman than on a black man. Betty Shelby as an individual holds no importance in this situation. She is representative of a horrifically racist and violent culture. Terence Crutcher as an individual holds much importance in this situation, yet his voice will never again be heard.
In an aerial video taken of the incident from a police helicopter, a male police officer’s voice is heard. “It looks like a bad dude, too,” he broadcasts, “might be on something.” At this point in the video, we see Crutcher with his hands up, walking back to his car. From an aerial perspective, it is clear that Crutcher is a large black man in a white t-shirt making slow, non-threatening movements. Is that what makes someone a “bad dude”?
Tulsa police later commented that they suspected Crutcher was under the influence. It is true that stopping a vehicle for no apparent reason in the middle of the road is erratic, but suspicion of drug use does not validate murder. Neither does non-threatening erratic behavior. Shelby killed Terence Crutcher for being a stranded black man.
Intersectional feminism is a branch of feminism that recognizes the interconnectedness of oppressive social institutions beyond sexism, including racism, transphobia and ableism.
There were several interconnected institutions at play in the murder of Terence Crutcher, the most apparent and horrific being the continued police massacre of black lives.
It can be helpful to analyze the role of policewomen and the unique challenges they face due to their gender. However, the media should not focus on Shelby’s femininity in covering this murder. It is not the time or the place to talk about policewomen versus policemen. It is both the time and place to talk about police violence against people of color. It is the time and place to talk about the dangers that people of color face doing something as harmless as wearing a hoodie or getting out of a vehicle.
It is not un-feminist to say that Betty Shelby was in the wrong. It is not un-feminist to suspect that racial bias propelled her unnecessary act of force, just as it is not un-feminist to not want to support Hilary Clinton. Shelby’s status as a woman does not grant her immunity from justice.
As feminists, it is acceptable to call out women who harm others. Feminism does not place women above judicial law. Betty Shelby’s adherence to the trend of American police harming innocent people of color is what is truly important in this situation. Don’t let the media confuse you. Betty Shelby holds no more importance than the dozens of other police shooters who have carried out racially-fueled violence. The conversation must be centered around the innocence of Terence Crutcher. Regardless of what influence he may or may not have been under, regardless of any background obtained after the incident, Terence Crutcher was killed by police for being a black man.