A day after surrendering to authorities, a volunteer deputy who says he accidentally shot a man is "devastated and emotionally troubled that he took another man's life," the deputy's attorney, Clark Brewster, told NBC News on Wednesday. The shooting of a black suspect by a white sheriff’s deputy was a "mistake" and an "excusable homicide," according Brewster.
Robert Bates accidentally fired his gun instead of his Taser, killing Eric Harris, who was unarmed. Bates surrendered for booking to authorities Tuesday morning in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and posted $25,000 bond. Bates is facing charges that could send the 73-year-old to jail for up to four years in a case that is likely to bring fresh scrutiny to the widespread practice of using unpaid volunteers to help police communities. Bates's next court appearance is set for Tuesday.
Volunteer reserve deputy Bates, the CEO of an insurance company, 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. Harris 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 Harris 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.”
Major Shannon Clark of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office said that Harris was a dangerous man and that Bates attempted to use the less lethal device but inadvertently used his handgun instead.
Bates’s attorney, Clark Brewster, told 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, the attorney said, 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 was seen placing his knee on Harris’s head, who says he can’t breathe. One of the officers then responds with an expletive “f--- your breath.”
Harris’s brother, Andre, said 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. On Wednesday Smolen called for an outside agency such as the Oklahoma Bureau of Investigation to conduct an inquiry into the shooting because he says the sheriff's office cannot be trusted to investigate itself.
Brewster said his client will plead not guilty, adding, “It was a tragic incident.” He said 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 reports.
In an interview with The Tulsa World, Sheriff Stanley Glanz said the reserve program would be examined. He said that he has been friends with Bates for about 50 years and that Bates has been his insurance agent. He said Bates did not receive any special treatment, despite reports that he had contributed money to the department.
Bates, who served as a Tulsa police officer for a year between 1964 and 1965, 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.