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Lawyer: Jury should hear about Oklahoma cop’s ‘auditory exclusion’


    A man holds a copy of the program for the funeral of Terence Crutcher during services to honor him in Tulsa, Okla., on Sept. 24. Crutcher was fatally shot Sept. 16 by Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby.


    This undated file photo provided by the Tulsa Oklahoma Police Department shows officer Betty Shelby. Police say Tulsa officer Shelby fired the fatal shot that killed Terence Crutcher on Sept. 16.

OKLAHOMA CITY » A lawyer for a white Oklahoma police officer charged in an unarmed black man’s death said she was so hyper-focused on the situation that she didn’t hear other officers arrive on the scene or even the deadly gunshot she fired.

Tulsa officer Betty Shelby, who is expected to plead not guilty to first-degree manslaughter at her arraignment on Friday, experienced what is commonly called “auditory exclusion,” a condition in which people in high-stress situations often don’t hear sounds around them, attorney Scott Wood said.

“She didn’t hear the gunshot, didn’t hear the sirens coming up behind her just prior to the shot,” Wood said Thursday. “And it’s not only a common phenomenon described in literature, but it’s the No. 1 perceptual distortion by people I have represented who have been involved in shootings — diminished sound or complete auditory exclusion.”

He said that while Shelby’s defense won’t hinge on whether she was aware of other officers when she shot 40-year-old Terence Crutcher on Sept. 16, it would be important for jurors to know.

“It’s just one of the many facts that have happened, and I don’t think our defense turns on whether or not she knew they were there,” Wood said.

Auditory exclusion is commonly reported by officers who fire their weapons, said David Klinger, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Klinger, a former Los Angeles police officer who fatally shot a suspect just four months into the job, interviewed 80 law enforcement officers involved in 113 separate cases where they shot citizens. Diminished sound was officers’ most commonly experienced perceptual distortion, reported in 82 percent of the cases either before or after the shooting, or in some cases both, his study shows.

“Other researchers have documented the phenomenon of muted sound or full auditory exclusion where you don’t hear anything in a variety of circumstances outside of policing,” Klinger said.

Other distortions include tunnel vision and altered perception of time, in which situations are experienced in slow motion.

Prosecutors allege in court documents that Shelby “reacted unreasonably” by escalating the situation with Crutcher, who she encountered after coming across his vehicle abandoned in the middle of a north Tulsa street. Videos from a police helicopter and a dashboard camera of the shooting and its aftermath showed Crutcher, who was unarmed, walking away from Shelby with his arms in the air, but the footage does not offer a clear view of when Shelby fired the single shot.

Shelby told investigators Crutcher refused repeated requests to stop and get on his knees and that she feared for her life and thought Crutcher was going to kill her, according to an affidavit filed with the manslaughter charge.

Another officer, who arrived on the scene after Shelby had already drawn her firearm, used a stun gun on Crutcher, but Wood said Shelby never even realized that officer was there until after she fired the deadly shot.

Despite the research, Lori Brown, a professor of sociology at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina, said she believes it’s dangerous to think a police officer would use auditory exclusion as a possible explanation for killing a man who was not doing anything aggressive.

“My response would be to focus on the research on implicit bias that, sadly, most of us have, even African-Americans, about black men, especially a larger black man and the fact that we tend to see them as threatening even when their behavior is in no way aggressive,” Brown said. “This may be why the same behaviors in white men often end peacefully but can result in the death of a black male.”

Shelby, 42, faces between four years and life in prison if convicted. She surrendered to authorities after being charged last week and is currently free on $50,000 bond. Wood said he expects to enter a not-guilty plea at her arraignment.

Wood had sought to expedite the arraignment, citing concerns for the officer’s safety amid an expected “onslaught of attendance” at the Friday hearing, but a judge on Thursday denied that request.

Crutcher’s shooting came four months after former Tulsa County volunteer sheriff’s deputy Robert Bates was sentenced to four years in prison on a second-degree manslaughter conviction in the 2015 death of an unarmed black man. Bates has said he confused his stun gun with his handgun. A police investigator maintained Bates experienced “slip and capture,” a high-stress phenomenon in which a person’s behavior “slips” off the intended course of action because it’s “captured” by a stronger response.

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  • Within the last few months, reporters have suddenly started referring to tasers as “stun guns”. This is grossly inaccurate. The taser works by inflicting sudden and severe pain. It doesn’t “stun” in the sense of the dictionary definition of causing unconciousness or loss of awareness.

    I can guess what might have prompted this sudden and unjustifiable change, but it doesn’t really matter. All of us understand what tasers are, all of us know what tasing means, and we don’t need a watered-down, inexact term to “educate” us further. Tasers aren’t “stun guns” and reporters should use the proper and precise terminology.

    • Nope, ever been in fight , or played football on a special teams, played baseball-batting before a large crowd, or combat where there is chaos? Unless you train for this, bad things happen. When I was a young police officer, put a guy in choke hold, got so focused almost killed the guy, especially because he was way bigger than me. Had a good sergeant who was also a football coach hand recognized this, saved the guy and my career.

      • Confronting a person with a gun is the same as trying to hit a baseball in a sport? Is the filtering process for getting to the professional sport level the same as the filtering process for a police office level?

        • If playing sports create situations where narrowing of focus/ tunnel vision, code black, etc. occur in players, imagine the effects on the officer this Oklahoma situation would have, regarding her narrowing of focus and such.

        • Shooting requires eye hand coordination skills. Id target, Id threat, determine shoot/don’t shoot all within less than 3 seconds. Things athletes do BEFORE they become cops or even pickup a gun. Taught my daughter how to shoot because she lives in a bad area of Oregon, picked it up real fast, she played sofball growing up. Athletes just get it quicker whether it is finding the ball in sports or identifying the threat and responding.

    • Rob–my thoughts exactly–grabbing for straws!! But, having said that I would hate to be a police officer on the beat—you have a split second to respond and the accusers have days to micro criticize. Just imagine being a white police officer in South Chicago????

    • One thing keeps coming to mind
      Why in the world would you even challenge any police officer knowing they have a gun, are likely fearful for their own life.
      It just seems stupid, arrogant, or crazy to do that

    • Exactly. Patrol officers on a national average shoot only once a year, annual qualifications. They also get shot/don’t shoot scenarios during recall, once a year. When they are thrown into a situation like this, panick sets in….I am all ways leery of “fat” cops that are scared, they are more likely to pull their gun.

      • Fat cops that are scared pull their guns more than Skinny cops that are scared? I bet the answer would be no, but scared cops unable to cope with the pressure of the situation would pull their guns consistently more often than officers with the skills to cope with these pressures.

        • you right, it is the stress and pressure. I just don’t like fat cops, my own personal prejudice.

    • Exactly. It’s easy for everyone not faced with he situation to speculate on what they would have done but until you are in the situation you don’t really know what you would do. itw easy to say what should have been done after the fact, not so easy during the situation.

  • We have not evolved enough to clear our minds of “survival” instincts, kill or be killed as our ancestors had to cope with in their daily lives. Some of us are throwbacks!

    • All of us are throwbacks if you think about it, how often has someone been startled by something while watching a scary movie? We get so focused in the “scary” part of the movie that we exclude useless details to focus on the details that our “survival” instincts need to get through the situation.

  • Mr. Crutcher had been exhibiting strange behavior BEFORE Officer Shelby arrived on scene. Officer Shelby was charged even before the official OIS investigation was complete. Let’s wait until all of the facts are presented before passing judgment.

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