Robert Bates, the 73-year-old Tulsa sheriff’s deputy who killed 44-year-old Eric Harris with a single gunshot that Bates claimed was a mistake, was charged with second-degree manslaughter yesterday by prosecutors.
If convicted, the insurance company executive could face a maximum of four years in prison.
The killing of Harris, who police said they were pursuing in an undercover sting operation in which Harris was attempting to sell a .9 mm weapon, has brought the national spotlight and outrage this time to Tulsa, as yet another killing of an unarmed Black man was caught on video. This comes just days after unarmed 50-year-old Walter Scott was gunned down by police officer Michael Slager in South Carolina in a killing captured by a bystander’s cellphone video.
But the Tulsa case has an element that has brought additional condemnation down upon the Tulsa sheriff’s department—what was a 73-year-old insurance executive doing out on an undercover sting operation with real officers, fully armed with a Taser and a gun, which he says he mixed up and discharged instead of the Taser?
Allowing civilians to play cops in exchange for payments and donations to the police is fairly common across the country. With the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department, the volunteer reserve deputies have full powers and authorities. Among the Tulsa volunteers, Bates apparently was a star: He was named Reserve Deputy of the Year in 2011, according to the Sheriff’s Office website.
Around the nation, reserves receive varying degrees of training and sometimes even bring their own equipment and weapons. According to Salon, in Oakley, Mich., a payment of $1,200 will get you a chance to act like a real cop in the streets.
“These people drop four or five grand and dress up to look like police,” Donna LaMontaine, president of the Deputy Sheriffs Association of Michigan, said to Salon. “I have a problem with that.”
Reserves have killed before—and they have also been killed. As pointed out by the Los Angeles Times, the Reserve Police Officers Association has a list of more than 200 reserves who have died in the line of duty. One of the latest was reserve officer Robert Libke from Oregon City, Ore., who in 2013 was shot and killed when he confronted an armed man who had set fire to his own house.
“I believe the ‘part time’ system of policing is absolutely ridiculous,” an unnamed law enforcement official said in a PoliceOne.com article. “The job has changed since walking down the street and spinning your baton. We now encounter more diverse and complicated situations, where we are expected to wear a multitude of hats, and do it perfectly the first time. We contend with more anti-police groups, 24/7 video taping, and more charging and law suit filings then ever before. As such, to do this job without a full salary and full benefits is insane.”
The LA Times pointed out another crucial factor: age. Bates in Tulsa was at least 20 years or more past the age that most cops retire. And in fact some police departments won’t even hire someone older than 40. But a 73-year-old man was able to run up and down the streets with Tulsa sheriff’s deputies.
Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler released a statement explaining the charge against Bates, which is Second-Degree Manslaughter involving culpable negligence.
“Oklahoma law defines culpable negligence as ‘the omission to do something which a reasonably careful person would do, or the lack of the usual ordinary care and caution in the performance of an act usually and ordinarily exercised by a person under similar circumstances and conditions,'” the statement said.
In the video, as Harris lay on the ground with an officer’s knee pressed against his head, he can be heard yelling, “He shot me! He shot me, man. Oh, my God. I’m losing my breath.”
An officer can be heard responding, “F**k your breath. Shut the f**k up!”
The video ironically may have been recorded with a sunglass camera that was donated by Bates, who has donated thousands of dollars worth of equipment, weapons and vehicles to the department.
On the video, a man that has been identified as Bates can be heard saying “Oh, I shot him. I’m sorry.”
Harris later died at a Tulsa hospital.
“My brothers soul cryes (sic) out as he lays face down on the ground and shot to death,” wrote the victim’s brother, Andre Harris, on Facebook. “Is this the system we want?”
Correction: This story originally said Bates was a reserve with the Tulsa police department. It has been corrected to sheriff’s department.