Questions are being raised about the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office Reserve Deputy Program following the fatal shooting of an unarmed black man by a volunteer 73-year-old deputy.
The reserve deputy, Robert "Bob" Bates, was charged with second-degree manslaughter Monday by the Tulsa County District Attorney's Office for killing Eric Courtney Harris during an undercover operation on April 2.
The Tulsa Sheriff's Office said Bates accidentally killed Harris when he reached for his handgun instead of his Taser. Bates faces a potential maximum prison sentence of four years.
"I shot him! I'm sorry," Bates can be heard saying in video of the incident. Sheriffs can then be heard cursing at Harris, as he writhes and complains that he has been shot. He later died in hospital.
The charges were announced Monday after the Sheriff's Office hired Jim Clark, a Tulsa police sergeant, to investigate the matter as an independent contractor, with Clark announcing on Friday that he believed Bates had committed no crime.
The Harris family's attorneys on Monday said the announcement of charges was evidence that the initial investigation was not sufficiently independent.
"I think it was refreshing to see what happens when an objective, independent investigation was conducted," attorney Daniel Smolen said. "That's the difference between an organization like the Tulsa County District Attorney's Office and the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office that financially benefits from Mr. Bates' involvement."
The Harris family attorneys also said it was inconceivable that an officer could accidentally confuse a Taser with the weapon used to kill Harris, a .357 magnum.
"The Taser has to be engaged on the side to even be used," said another attorney, Donald Smolen. "This weapon is hammerless, it's a double-action revolver, there's no engagement mechanism."
"The spin on Mr. Bates getting confused at the last second … is false," he said.
Bates, an insurance company executive, worked as a police officer more than 50 years ago, but only for a period of 12 months, according to the Tulsa County Police Department.
In addition to volunteering as a reserve deputy, campaign finance records obtained by BuzzFeed News confirm that Bates worked as the chair of the reelection campaign for Tulsa Sheriff Stanley Ganz in 2012. In donating $2,500 to the sheriff's campaign, he was also Ganz's largest donor, contributing $1,500 more than the second-largest donor.
At least two other people who made contributions to the sheriff's campaign currently work as reserve deputies, according to records obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The Tulsa World also reported that Bates purchased at least five vehicles and surveillance gear for the undercover team he worked with.
"We do not believe it is reasonable for a 73-year-old insurance executive to be involved in a dangerous undercover sting operation," the Harris family said in a statement Monday. "We do not believe it is reasonable – or responsible – for [the Sheriff's office] to accept gifts from a wealthy citizen who wants to be a 'pay to play' cop."
Tulsa Police Department spokesman Officer Leland Ashley told BuzzFeed News that the Sheriff's Office could have elected to have Tulsa police investigate the matter, but decided to instead conduct its own internal review.
Ashley said many media reports had falsely cited the police department as being involved in the incident, perhaps due to Clark's selection as an independent contractor.
As a result, the police department has moved to try to distance itself from the sheriff's office, releasing a "clarification of facts."
"Tulsa-Reserve Officer Robert Bates works for the Tulsa County Sheriff. There is no relation between the Tulsa Police Department, a municipal police agency, and the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office," the statement read. "Although the shooting took place in Tulsa, the Tulsa Police Department was not involved in the operation leading up to the shooting, the shooting itself nor the investigation of the shooting."
The distinctions between the Tulsa Police Department and Sheriff's Office can also be seen in how each institution uses its reserves. The Sheriff's Office describes its reserves as a "vital part" of the force, who are used to "augment the manpower" of the office. In contrast, even though the Police Department operates its own reserve program, several Tulsa officials told BuzzFeed News that no reserve officer, let alone an elderly one, would be permitted to participate in such a dangerous sting operation for the police.
"[The Police Department] use reserves for things like traffic control when we have special events like running races, or we use them to write handicap parking violation citations," Ashley told BuzzFeed News. "We don't use them in task force situations."
"They may ride along with patrol officers from time to time, but they are always with a certified officer," Ashley said. "If we're going to do a raid ... or if we're going to do a search warrant we're going to use the officers that are basically being paid to do this. We will not use unpaid officers to do that work."
Several calls and emails from BuzzFeed News to the public information officer at the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office were not returned. However, Ken McNair, executive vice president of the Oklahoma Sheriffs' Association, defended the reserve program.
"I think it's a good concept," he told BuzzFeed News. "It's existed here since the late 1970s or early 1980s. It evolved from the civil defense program and the idea behind it is just to increase police manpower on heavy call nights, on Friday and Saturday nights."
McNair said he was satisfied with the level of training reserve deputies must undergo, comparing those who volunteered their time to reserve fighters called upon during World War II. "It's about augmenting the regulars. That's the theory," he said. "There's a whole lot of areas in Oklahoma that would not be covered by law enforcement without this protocol."
McNair also rejected the notion that Bates was too old to serve as a reserve deputy, saying he serves as a reserve at the age of 75.
David Mack is a reporter and weekend editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.
Contact David Mack at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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