A reserve sheriff’s deputy who fatally shot a black suspect during an arrest caught on tape has been charged with second-degree manslaughter.
Robert Bates is a 73-year-old chief executive of a local insurance company who has paid big money to the Tulsa County (Oklahoma) Sheriff’s Department and donated cars and other equipment in exchange for the privilege of playing the starring role of a reserve deputy.
For his role, Bates logged more than 300 hours of training, his attorney Scott Wood told reporters last week. He logged more than 1,100 community hours and participated in more than 100 operations — including the execution of search warrants and arrests — until earlier this month when something went terribly wrong.
Bates and other officers were conducting an undercover weapons sting on April 2. Eric Harris, 44, was suspected of trying to sell an illegal firearm to an undercover officer. At some point in the exchange, Harris began running away from deputies and a brief foot pursuit ensued. Video of the pursuit shows a deputy tackling Harris to the ground before a gunshot rings out.
A voice identified as Bates’ is heard saying on the video “Oh, I shot him! I’m sorry.” Authorities later said Bates intended to use his stun gun, but fired his pistol instead.
Later in the video, Harris could be heard pleading with the deputies. One deputy responds to Harris’ plea for help by saying, “You fucking ran. Shut the fuck up.” Harris is then heard saying he’s having a hard time breathing, to which a deputy responds, “Fuck your breath.”
Harris died in a Tulsa hospital an hour later.
Some are now questioning whether civilians should be given the privilege of playing cop in exchange for a payment of cash or goods, as was apparently the case with Bates.
“It’s absolutely mind boggling that you have a wealthy businessman who’s been essentially deputized to go play like he’s some outlaw, like he’s just cleaning up the streets,” said Daniel Smolen, an attorney retained by Harris’ family.
Bates is one of 100 reserve deputies with the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department. A sheriff’s spokesperson told the Tulsa World newspaper that reserve deputies have “full powers and authorities” as regular, sworn deputies when they are on the job. Bates was reportedly assigned to the Violent Crimes Task Force, something a sheriff’s spokesperson said was not considered unusual for the agency.
But Harris’ family disagrees.
“We do not believe it is reasonable for a 73-year-old insurance executive to be involved in a dangerous undercover sting operation,” Harris’ family said in a statement released last week. “We do not believe it is reasonable — or responsible — for (the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Department) to accept gifts from a wealthy citizen who wants to be a ‘pay-to-play’ cop.”
Initially, the Tulsa sheriff’s department came to Bates’ defense, saying the reserve deputy was not part of the original arrest team but was “thrust into the situation” because Harris fled from officers. Bates “did not commit a crime,” a Tulsa Sheriff’s spokesperson said on Friday.
Tulsa County prosecutors felt differently, charging Bates with second-degree manslaughter on Monday due to “culpable negligence,” CNN reported. If convicted, the felony charge could earn Bates around four years in prison.
Matthew Keys is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.