A white sheriff’s deputy volunteer who accidentally fired his gun instead of his Taser, killing a black suspect, surrendered for booking to authorities in Tulsa, Oklahoma, Tuesday morning. He is facing homicide charges that could send the 73-year-old to jail for up to four years in a case that is sure to bring fresh scrutiny to the widespread practice of using unpaid volunteers to help police communities.
Volunteer reserve deputy Robert Bates, an insurance executive, was charged with second-degree manslaughter for the April 2 incident, in which officers were conducting an undercover sting operation into illegal gun sales.
In video captured by a camera mounted in an officer’s eyewear, the suspect, Eric Harris, can be seen allegedly selling a gun to an undercover officer. He is seen handling the gun and placing it on the floor of the squad car, then jumps out of the car and begins running. Video shot by another officer shows him running away with officers in pursuit. He is tackled and brought to the ground.
In the video, an officer believed to be Bates says, “Taser, Taser,” then a moment later, “Oh, I shot him. I’m sorry.” The suspect yells, “He shot me, he shot me.”
Bates’ attorney, Clark Brewster, tells NBC News that Bates was parked two blocks from the location of the buy operation and was there to provide supplies in the event they were needed. Harris, he says, just happened to run into Bates as he was making his escape.
In a scene reminiscent of the chokehold of Eric Garner in Staten Island last year, one of the officers places his knee on Harris’s head, who says he can’t breathe. One of the officers then responds with an expletive “**** your breath.”
Major Shannon Clark of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office says that Harris was a very dangerous man and that Bates attempted to use the less lethal device but inadvertently used his handgun instead.
Brewster says his client will plead not guilty adding, “It was a tragic incident.” He says Bates is a longtime resident who has contributed a lot to the city and its people. He also told NBC News that Bates has been a volunteer deputy since 2007, contrary to other published repots.
Harris’ brother, Andre, says Bates was unqualified as an officer and should have known the difference between using a gun and a Taser. “To see the violence that was taken towards him, really turns my stomach,” he said.
Donald Smolen, an attorney for the Harris family, says the shooting was inhumane and malicious. “You can clearly hear him saying he can’t breathe after being shot,” Smolen said, adding that it was inappropriate for a 73-year-old reserve officer to be involved in such a dangerous undercover sting operation. He also suggests that Bates had the volunteer job because he had donated significant money to the sheriff’s campaign.
Bates, a former Tulsa police officer, was an unpaid member of the Reserve Deputy program, which is made up of 130 volunteers who receive training, according to Clark. He has reportedly donated both money and cars to the Tulsa sheriff’s department and has served more than 3,000 hours as a reserve deputy.
The practice of using civilians as volunteer officers has generated controversy in the past, and this deadly shooting is likely to add to growing calls for better training for volunteers, if not a ban on their use. Nationwide, there are an estimated 50,000 reserve officers.