This weekend, yet another instance of a police shooting of an unarmed black man occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and it's a story you'll probably be hearing a whole lot more about. And with 44-year-old Eric Harris dead, and the deputy who shot him facing a manslaughter charge involving culpable negligence, it's a good time to get to know what happened and familiarize yourself with the person who faces charges — after discharging the gun accidentally, according to the police department. In other words, who is Robert Bates?
Robert Bates is a 73-year-old volunteer deputy of the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office, the CEO of an insurance company, and the subject of a whole lot of turmoil. On April 2, he declared in a now-published video that he was going to deploy his Taser on the unarmed Harris after a sting operation, and instead shot him in the back. (The video is quite disturbing, as you'd expect, so you should exercise your own best judgment about whether you want to watch it.)
The incident's spurred a lot of outcry, especially in light of other recent, high-profile incidents of police violence against black victims, and questions have been raised about Bates' level of experience and training prior to the shooting. He reportedly served as a member of the Tulsa Police Department for just one year in the 1960s, and as detailed by CNN, the Tulsa Sheriff's Office has said that Bates has been active as a reserve deputy since 2008, a role for which he's had more than 300 hours of training. Moreover, they've said he had more than 1,100 hours of experience doing "community policing" at the time he fatally shot Harris.
In the immediate aftermath of the gunshot, as seen on the video, Bates apologizes for shooting Harris. This apology may end up being central to the case going forward, as both the Sheriff's Office and Bates' attorney maintain that the incident was a mistake; that he'd meant to fire his Taser, but drew his handgun accidentally.
The charge Bates faces is for second-degree manslaughter, and that's a meaningful distinction — while both are felonies, second-degree manslaughter has a maximum sentence of four years in prison, while first-degree sets four years as a minimum.
Of all the information out there about Bates, however, perhaps the most-discussed and controversial piece right now is why he was on the scene with uniformed, full-fledged officers in the heat of a post-sting suspect chase. Multiple outlets, including CNN and The Daily Beast, have reported on allegations from Harris family attorney Daniel Smolen that Bates was essentially "a pay to play cop," a wealthy business owner whose role as a reserve deputy was the result of a history of high-value donations to the department. Harris' family expressed this sentiment in a statement released Sunday,
We do not believe it is reasonable for a 73-year-old insurance executive to be involved in a dangerous undercover sting operation. We do not believe it is reasonable for Bob Bates to be carrying a gun that was not issued by TCSO. We do not believe it is reasonable – or responsible – for TCSO to accept gifts from a wealthy citizen who wants to be “pay to play” cop.
The Tulsa Sheriff's Office has firmly denied these accusations, telling the Tulsa World that there's nothing unusual about Bates' involvement.
There are lots of wealthy people in the reserve program. Many of them make donations of items. That’s not unusual at all.
Bates' attorney has also weighed in on the controversy, advocating for his client's innocence — as quoted by Reuters, he described Bates as "a guy who supports his community," and he told The New York Times that the controversy was all because of undue media attention.
I think it’s kind of a response to the national fervor and media concerning police shootings. I think he just kind of capitulated to that. This truly is an event that was unintended and what I consider to be a justifiable homicide.