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Eric Harris’ final hours before his murder by an officer
Published 06/24/2020 | Reading Time 29 min 30 sec
By Smolen & Roytman, Attorneys at Law
The history of race relations in Tulsa is notoriously tragic. For decades, white business and political leaders suppressed information related to the appalling events of 1921. Despite this cover up, the truth eventually came to light. By now, the 1921 Race Massacre is an inescapable part of Tulsa’s legacy. The catastrophic loss of life and destruction of dozens of square blocks of Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood and commercial district — commonly referred to as Black Wall Street – – is now well-known and documented history. Perhaps unsurprisingly, local law enforcement played a role in the razing of Greenwood. As recounted in Scott Ellsworth’s Death in a Promised Land, Tulsa police had virtually no presence in Greenwood as an armed white mob started fires around the neighborhood and invaded the area like a militarized squadron. In other words, the police did nothing to protect Black lives, homes, and businesses as Greenwood burned to the ground. As stated by scholar Russell Cobb, “the police department mainly served to facilitate the invasion.” Russell Cobb, The Great Oklahoma Swindle, (University of Nebraska Press, 2020), 197. Thus, rational mistrust of police within the Black community is deeply rooted in Tulsa’s past.
Nearly 100 years after the Race Massacre, Tulsa remains one of the most segregated cities in the United States. And while a recent revitalization of the Greenwood area and institution of a racially diverse Race Massacre Centennial Commission provide genuine hope for healing and unity, racial divisions remain.
Our law firm has — and attorneys from our law firm have — prosecuted several notable civil rights cases where racial disparities were at issue. Some of these cases involve high-level governmental corruption. Some of these cases involve inhumane, or even barbaric, mistreatment of Black citizens. All of these cases, taken together, indicate that Tulsa still has a long way to go in approaching true reconciliation.
Tulsa Police Department
Bob Blakemore, before joining Smolen & Roytman, represented the plaintiff class in Johnson v. City of Tulsa, 94-CV-39-TCK-FHM (N.D. Okla.), known as the “Black Officers Case.” The plaintiff class was composed of all Black sworn personnel of the Tulsa Police Department (“TPD”). There were nineteen named plaintiffs, all Black police officers, all of whom asserted claims of systemic and long-standing racial discrimination within the TPD. After years of hard-fought and contentious litigation, the City and Plaintiffs reached a proposed Consent Decree in April of 2002. The proposed Consent Decree called for numerous policy changes within the TPD in areas such as promotions, assignments and data collection. The proposed Decree contained no racial preferences or affirmative action measures. Nevertheless, Lodge # 93 of the Fraternal Order of Police (the “FOP”), whose membership was almost exclusively white at the time, vehemently opposed the Consent Decree, and litigated the matter before both the trial court and Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The “fairness hearings,” held in June and July of 2002, were like a scene from a John Grisham novel. The racial animus in the courtroom was palpable. As observed by then Chief Judge Sven Erik Holmes, “witnesses noted that the gallery was distinctly divided along racial lines, with African–American officers sitting on one side and white officers on the other.” Johnson v. City of Tulsa, No. 94-CV-39-H(M), 2003 WL 24015151, at *53 (N.D. Okla. May 12, 2003).
The racial issues within TPD did not dissipate with the Consent Decree in the Black Officers’ case. TPD’s Internal Affairs Annual Report for 2018, published on TPD’s website, reports that of TPD’s 946 sworn and non-sworn employees, only 8.7% percent were Black, despite the fact that, according to the same document, 15.1% of Tulsa’s population is Black. And worse, despite only making up 54.9% of the population of the Tulsa, according to TPD’s Report, Caucasians account for 74.3% of TPD’s employees. See https://www.tulsapolice.org/media/165885/IA_Annual_Report_2018r.pdf.
Just this month, nearly 20 years after the racially divided fairness hearings in the Black Officers Case, TPD was again in the news for the wrong reasons. First, TPD Major Travis Yates publicly stated that Tulsa police were “shooting African-Americans about 24 percent less than we probably ought to be, based on the crimes being committed.” Lt. Marcus Harper, President of the Black Officers Coalition, condemned Yates’s comments and opined that there was a problem with TPD’s “culture of policing….” Then, video surfaced of white Tulsa officers stopping and handcuffing two Black teenagers for jaywalking. In one video, an officer is seen forcing one of the boys to the ground and then pinning him down after he was handcuffed and subdued. As observed by Lt. Harper, this type of unnecessarily aggressive policing is “not happening in other parts of town.”
TPD’s “unnecessarily aggressive policing” against Black civilians is evidenced further by the use of force statistics published in TPD’s Internal Affairs Annual Report. In 2018, according to TPD, 38.1% of the police encounters in which an officer reported using force involved the use of force against an African American, despite African Americans only making up 15.1% of the population of the City of Tulsa. With limited exception, these uses of force are determined by TPD supervisors or investigators as being compliant with TPD policy. Examples of TPD’s “unnecessarily aggressive policing” against Black civilians often cross the line into civil rights violations. Such is the case with two of Smolen & Roytman’s current clients, Ira Wilkins and Ernie Fields, whose mistreatment was captured by TPD body cameras.
On February 5, 2017, three white TPD Officers, Mortenson, Emberton, and Rangel, encountered Ira Lee Wilkins, a Black man, while he was sitting in his parked car in a parking lot. Officer Mortenson walked to Mr. Wilkins’s car and yelled at him to turn off the radio. Mr. Wilkins complied with the order and remained seated in his car. Mortenson then ordered Mr. Wilkins to get out of his vehicle, and, again, Mr. Wilkins complied. Mortenson then turned Mr. Wilkins around so his back was facing the officers, and pushed Mr. Wilkins against his vehicle. Mortenson then handcuffed Mr. Wilkins and began frisking him while Officers Emberton and Rangel stood just inches away.
While searching Mr. Wilkins, Mortensen repeatedly pulled back on the handcuffs, which caused Mr. Wilkins apparent pain. Suddenly, Mortensen and Emberton, along with Rangel, whose body camera recorded the scene, forcefully took Mr. Wilkins to the ground. Mr. Wilkins began pleading with the officers to stop and that they were breaking his wrists. A voice from one of the officers’ radios can then be heard asking if the officers had “spray.” When an officer responded in the affirmative, an order was given to “spray him,” despite the fact that Mr. Wilkins was compliant, not resisting, in handcuffs, and subdued with three officers on top of him. Mr. Wilkins continued pleading with the officers, who told him to “stop it.” A “spraying” sound is then heard, shortly accompanied by a voice saying “that’s enough.” Mr. Wilkins then began slowly rocking back and forth on his side, wailing in obvious distress, while Mortenson continued searching Mr. Wilkins’s pockets. One officer can then be heard asking Mr. Wilkins if he “would like more spray?” Mr. Wilkins said that he did not, and the officer then taunted Mr. Wilkins by repeating, “do you want more spray?”
Mr. Wilkins continued lying on the ground in complete silence, seemingly unconscious. He was so incapacitated that Mortenson asked Rangel if Mr. Wilkins was still breathing. Rangel then told Mortenson that they “had to get him compliant one way or another, but he just kept fighting us,” despite the fact that Mr. Wilkins had never refused any of the officers’ orders. Multiple TPD vehicles then arrived and several more TPD officers approached Mr. Wilkins and Rangel. Rangel began telling the newly arrived officers what had just transpired, grossly exaggerating about Mr. Wilkins’s actions and laughing about the fact that he had pepper-sprayed Mr. Wilkins. Mr. Wilkins remained seated on the ground, still handcuffed, in a “slouched” position, moaning in distress. None of the officers ever attempted to check on Mr. Wilkins or ask if he was okay. Emberton retrieved some type of decontamination spray from her vehicle and sprayed Rangel with it, but failed to spray Mr. Wilkins.
Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office
∎ TCSO Employment Discrimination Cases
In the mid 2000s, Dan Smolen represented seven (7) Black Tulsa County deputy sheriffs. The deputies alleged that they were treated differently and less favorably than white employees; were denied promotions and transfers for which they were eligible; were disciplined more harshly than white employees; and were retaliated against when they complained about unfair treatment. Specific allegations include white detention officers routinely using racially offensive language, such as the N-word, in front of black employees, and a chaplain telling racially hostile jokes in front of black employees. Each accused Chief Deputy Tim Albin of racially insensitive behavior. Deputy Peters claimed Albin gave her a management manual titled “Who’s Got the Monkey?” and that she was unaware of any white officers being given the manual. Deputy Anjorin alleged that Albin made a racist statement when he told her that she used good grammar and could be utilized as a “go-between” with other Black officers. Among Deputy Harvey’s allegations are that white officers repeatedly used racially offensive language in front of her and that nothing was done when she complained about it. After complaining, Harvey was “demoted from her position and forced to work in the Housing Department….”
The cases were settled, in an amount totaling over $1 million, in 2011.
∎ Elliott Williams
In late 2011, Smolen & Roytman was retained to represent the Estate of Elliott Williams. Elliott Williams was a Black Army Veteran who died at the Tulsa County Jail days after being arrested for misdemeanor “obstruction.” Our investigation revealed shockingly inhumane indifference to Elliott’s well-being by the Jail’s medical and detention staff. As it turned out, Elliott had broken his neck shortly after arriving at the Jail and immediately began complaining of paralysis. He was baselessly accused of “faking.” Over the course of approximately five (5) days, numerous detention officers, nurses, doctors and other health care providers repeatedly came into contact Elliott. Each of these professionals had an opportunity and duty to help Mr. Williams. Any one of these professionals could have saved Mr. Williams’s life. Yet, none of them bothered to take even the most minimal steps to address Mr. Williams’s conspicuous medical needs and desperate pleas for help. As he laid naked and alone on a cold cell floor, Elliott repeatedly begged to be sent to the hospital and pleaded for a simple drink of water. No one assisted him. Paralyzed, he was unable to eat or drink for days. Suffering helplessly, he laid in his own urine and excrement. Still, Elliott was ignored and even ridiculed by the staff.
Though there are numerous specific examples of Williams’ horrific experience at the Jail, his treatment by Jail staff in the shower area was particularly inhumane, and even sadistic. The following is an excerpt from Plaintiff’s appellate brief addressing the issue:
Captain Tommy Fike and Sergeant Doug Hinshaw responded to the “medical emergency” [involving Williams]. JA6898-99, 6903. By the time Fike encountered Williams in cell #10 on the afternoon of October 22, he had both urinated and defecated on himself. JA11265; 11885. Williams told Fike that he was in “constant pain….” JA11914 (emphasis in original). Fike and Hinshaw placed Williams on a gurney and wheeled him to the Jail’s medical unit shower area. JA11884-85. Williams continued to exhibit behavior consistent with severe mental health problems and physical injuries. For example, Williams repeatedly insisted that something needed to be “cut” out of him and asked Nurse Earnie Chappell to “kill him.” JA11263; 10870. Chappell told Williams that she “knew he was faking” and demanded that he “get up.” JA6903 (emphasis added).
After Fike and Hinshaw wheeled Williams to medical unit shower area, they began cursing at him, taunting him and demanding that he get off the gurney and get in the shower. JA9062-71. Once again, Williams insisted that he “couldn’t move”. JA11885, 11953-54. Williams was begging Fike to take him to the hospital. JA9164. Fike and Hinshaw tilted the gurney up and dumped Williams off and into the shower. JA9067; 11953; 6903-04. As he fell, Williams’ head and body loudly slammed onto shower floor, and he laid there screaming “help me, help me….” JA9164, see also JA9067, 11953.
Fike and Hinshaw turned on the water and left Williams alone in the shower. JA9067. Officer Leverich witnessed Williams lying face down in the shower; Williams was “screaming ‘help me[!]’” JA11911. Officer West, observed Williams lying face down in the shower and saying that he “he couldn’t move, he couldn’t get up.” JA11886 (emphasis in original). Nevertheless, no one at the Jail helped Williams. JA6904-05. Rather, Williams was left alone, face down, in the shower for approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes. JA7090.
After Williams was in the shower for well over an hour, Officer Leverich observed that he looked like he was experiencing an “extreme lack of oxygen”; Williams’ skin was a “purplish color”. JA11911 (emphasis added); see also JA7111. The change in color was a clear sign that Williams was not faking his condition. JA7069. Still, there is no evidence that Williams was ever provided with any medical assistance. JA6894.
On the morning of October 27, 2011, after five (5) days of unfathomable suffering, staff found Mr. Williams unresponsive in his video monitored cell. Incompetent attempts at CPR were made. Mr. Williams was pronounced dead at approximately 11:21 a.m.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner determined that the cause of death was “complications of vertebrospinal injuries due to blunt force trauma.” The Medical Examiner also conducted an ancillary vitreous electrolyte analysis which showed a “dehydration pattern….”
After Elliott’s Estate filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court against the Tulsa County Sheriff, the case was vigorously litigated for years. After a 17-day trial, on March 22, 2017, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the Estate, assessing $10 million dollars in compensatory damages against Tulsa County and former Sheriff Stanley Glanz, and $250,000 in punitive damages against former Sheriff Glanz. The Defendants appealed.
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the judgment in an 81-page Opinion. In affirming, the Circuit noted that “Mr. Williams experienced physical suffering for five full days while jail personnel repeatedly ignored his complaints of paralysis, thirst, and pain” and that “[h]e ultimately suffered respiratory failure and death.” See Burke v. Regalado, 935 F.3d 960, 1039 (10th Cir. 2019). Importantly, the appellate court also found indifference at the highest levels of the agency and longstanding deficiencies in the Jail’s medical delivery system. The Circuit specifically observed that Sheriff Glanz “acted with indifference or a reckless disregard for the health or safety of others” and that “[t]he evidence showed that Sheriff Glanz was deliberately indifferent for years to the substantial risk that deficient medical care at the jail would result in disastrous health outcomes for inmates.” Id. (emphasis added). Yet, as the Circuit found, Glanz “did nothing to abate that risk and one witness testified that Sheriff Glanz even tried to thwart the auditing process on one occasion by allowing officials to hide troubling inmate medical records.” Id. Lastly, the Circuit found that Sheriff Glanz’s conduct “involved repeated actions,” including “multiple warnings about the failing medical care at the jail over the course of four years” and that “[w]hile reforms went unimplemented, several inmates died.” Id. (emphasis added).
∎ Eric Harris
On April 2, 2015, Eric Harris, a Black Tulsan, died as a proximate result of Reserve Deputy, Robert C. Bates’s unreasonable and excessive use of deadly force. Specifically, Bates shot Mr. Harris in the back, at close range, with a .357 revolver, at a time when Mr. Harris was unarmed, not fleeing arrest and had been subdued by as many as four (4) other deputies. Our firm was retained to represent Mr. Harris’s Estate shortly after his death.
Our investigation and litigation of the Harris matter revealed profound corruption and reckless incompetence within the leadership of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office. First and foremost, it was a tragic case, involving the needless loss of Mr. Harris’s life. More broadly, it was a case of extreme and outrageous governmental misconduct. So much so that the underlying facts led to the indictment of Former Sheriff Glanz and the end of his long and, and what was previously thought to be storied, career. Much of that same evidence resulted in the felony conviction and imprisonment of Bob Bates, a Reserve Deputy, elderly insurance executive, and wealthy benefactor and personal friend of Sheriff Glanz.
Bates killed Harris during the course of an ostensibly dangerous undercover operation conducted by the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office’s (“TCSO”). More specifically, on April 2, 2015, TCSO’s Violent Crimes Task Force was involved in a sting operation targeting Eric Harris. An undercover officer had arranged to purchase a firearm from Mr. Harris in the parking lot of a Dollar General store in North Tulsa.
By the time Bates walked up to the location where another deputy (Vaca) had tackled Harris, four (4) other deputies, M. Huckeby, Byars, Foster, and Layman, had already arrived to assist. At least three (3) of these deputies were physically holding Mr. Harris down on the pavement. Harris was unarmed. Indeed, Foster was standing on Mr. Harris’s legs, making it impossible for him to flee or actively resist. For reasons that will likely never be understood, Bates shot the defenseless Harris with his Smith & Wesson .357 revolver, a deadly and powerful firearm. The .357 revolver was Bates’s own personal firearm. It was not issued to him by TCSO. Consistent with Former Sheriff Glanz/TCSO’s failure to train and supervise Bates, and in violation of TCSO Policy, Bates was never trained or certified to use the .357 revolver as his service weapon. Indeed, a Grand Jury found that “Reserve Deputy Bates was permitted by [TCSO] to wear and utilize firearms not approved for use by the Sheriff[’s] Office in violation of TCSO policy.” Grand Jury Report at 3 (emphasis added). Further, the Smith & Wesson .357 revolver was not on the list of approved firearms deputies can carry on duty. See, e.g., Grand Jury Report at 3.
The sound of the gunshot can be clearly heard from the audio picked up by Vaca’s video recorder glasses. Harris repeatedly told the deputies he had been shot — yelling, “he shot me!” — and blood could be seen trickling down his right arm. Bates can be heard on the video saying he had shot Harris, stating: “oh, I shot him. I’m sorry.” Harris can be heard stating, “I’m losing my breath,” to which Byars cruelly replied, “f**k your breath!”
Bates was the longtime friend and financial supporter of Former Sheriff Glanz. Well before Bates shot and killed Mr. Harris, Former Sheriff Glanz knew that Bates did not have the necessary training or certifications to engage in TCSO’s field operations. Former Sheriff Glanz knew that Bates was not proficient with a firearm and posed a significant risk to the public. Yet, in a shameful display of cronyism run amok, Former Sheriff Glanz turned a blind eye to these dangers, in violation of his own policies and the United States Constitution, in order to allow his friend and financial supporter to “play cop” in the streets of Tulsa County. Eric Harris needlessly died as a direct consequence.
Fundamentally, Sheriff Glanz failed to properly train and supervise TCSO employees. There is a well-documented and sordid history of Bates’s undue financial and political influence over Former Sheriff Glanz and TCSO, his preferential treatment, and Glanz’s failure to assure that Bates
received adequate field training and supervision. For instance, through a 2009 Internal Affairs (“IA”) investigation, Sheriff Glanz was put on notice that Bates: (A) was operating in the field, without supervision, despite lacking hundreds of hours of required field training; (B) had failed to meet firearms requirements; and (C) was not capable of operating in the field. Former Sheriff Glanz knew that Capt. Tom Huckeby had falsified Bates’s training records to make it appear as if he’d received the requisite field training.
Former Sheriff Glanz’s own IA investigator determined that: “policy has been violated and continues to be violated by both Capt. Tom Huckeby and Chief Deputy Tim Albin with regard to special treatment shown to Reserve Deputy Robert Bates with regard to his field training” and that Albin had created “an atmosphere in which employees were intimidated to fail to adhere to policies in a manner which benefits Reserve Deputy Bates.” However, rather than take corrective action to assure that Bates received the necessary training and to discipline Capt. Huckeby and Albin, Glanz ratified his subordinates’ retaliation against Bates’s immediate supervisors and promoted Huckeby and Albin.
In spite of the known lack of training and supervision, Former Sheriff Glanz permitted Bates to continue functioning in the field. What’s more, Bates went on to join the “elite” Violent Crimes Task Force, and participated in numerous dangerous law enforcement operations. The depth of Sheriff Glanz’s refusal to train and supervise Bates is nothing short of astonishing. In fact, a Grand Jury, duly impaneled by the Tulsa County District Court, found Former Sheriff Glanz “was inexcusably reckless in performing his duty to supervise and lead the Sheriff’s Office.” Grand Jury Report at 2 (emphasis added).
The case was settled in 2018 for $6 million.
∎ Carlos Carson
In the latest manifestation of Tulsa’s splintered race relations, on June 6, 2020, Carlos Carson (“Carlos”), a 36-year-old African-American male, was shot dead by former TCSO Sergeant, Christopher Straight. Straight was previously under investigation for assaulting people of color and has a documented history of racist conduct. Straight was allowed to resign from TCSO while Internal Affairs (“IA”) investigations into his alleged violations of policy were still pending. After resigning from TCSO under dubious circumstances, Straight began working in motel security.
On June 6, Straight was working as a security guard at the Knights Inn, 1021 S. Garnett Road. Surveillance video shows Carlos leaving the QuikTrip across the street and walking onto the Knight’s Inn parking lot at around noon. Suddenly, and utterly unprovoked, Straight, while sitting in his vehicle, aimed a dispenser directly at Carlos and drenched his head and face with pepper spray. This attack was completely unwarranted, excessive and unreasonable. At the time that Straight pepper-sprayed Carlos, he posed no threat to Straight or anyone else. It was nothing more than a cowardly “sneak attack”. Blinded, in obvious pain and enraged, Carlos understandably attempted to fight his attacker. Straight responded with deadly force, lifting his firearm and shooting Carlos twice. The second shot was fired after Carlos was incapacitated and on the ground, or going to the ground. Tragically, Carlos was dead. Straight was subsequently charged with first-degree manslaughter. Smolen & Roytman has been retained to represent Carlos’ Estate.
Smolen & Roytman is a Tulsa, Oklahoma law firm specializing in civil rights litigation, personal injury and employment discrimination cases.