It’s been two years since Terence Crutcher died, but once in a while, his sister Tiffany Crutcher will talk about him as though he’s still here.
“Terence and I just celebrated our 42nd birthday, August 16th,” she says.
Tiffany, who has a clinical doctorate in physical rehabilitation, is a health care provider. This particular Wednesday afternoon in late August, she’s put work on hold for 20 minutes so she can talk to you about Betty Shelby.
Shelby was in the news again that week after TulsaWorld reported that the former Tulsa police officer, now sheriff’s deputy, was teaching a class called, “Surviving the Aftermath of a Critical Incident.” According to the state’s website, Shelby, who killed Terence Crutcher on September 16, 2016, instructs law enforcement officers how to deal with the “legal, financial, physical, and emotional challenges which may result from” killing a civilian, and other such “critical” incidents.
Shelby had been teaching the class since last October, she says—five months after her manslaughter acquittal. But that Tuesday in August, the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s March on Washington, Tiffany notes, was the first day Shelby taught the course in Tulsa.
When Tiffany first found out about the class the week before, she says she was “blown away.”
“I immediately got sick to my stomach and this feeling of outrage just came all over my body,” she says. “I felt like the feeling I had when she was acquitted. And the feeling I had when I heard of Terence being killed.”
But then, that very morning, as she was getting ready for work, Tiffany saw her brother’s killer on Good Morning America in a segment titled “Betty Shelby responds to the critics.” In the segment, Shelby, wearing her all-black sheriff’s deputy uniform, her hair pulled back in an austere ponytail, tells the interviewer, “When I was told I may never work in law enforcement again, I had to find a purpose. So I made a commitment to help my brothers and sisters.”
The course, she explains, is about surviving the “Ferguson effect,” a reference to the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. She wanted to help police “victimized” by groups demanding accountability for the death of black civilians. Groups like Black Lives Matter.
Based on Shelby’s own recounting, it was a course on how to survive black people’s anger.
“I had to physically deal with leaving my home unexpectedly due to threats. I had to come up with a solution as to how to financially survive because I was put on administrative leave,” Shelby says.
After last year’s trial, Shelby was awarded backpay for the time she spent on administrative leave. Her record was expunged. During the GMA interview, the star of Shelby’s deputy badge gleams in the light.
Watching the segment, Tiffany couldn’t move.
“I was late to work,” she tells you over the phone. “The tears wouldn’t stop rolling down my cheeks. I was angry.”
“She was just this victim. And I couldn’t stomach it because my brother didn’t get the opportunity to survive. My brother didn’t get to tell his side of the story.”
On the anniversary of Terence’s death, another killing at the hands of a police officer has gripped the country, this time in Dallas, Texas. Like Betty Shelby, Amber Guyger is a white female cop accused of shooting and killing an unarmed black men. Like Betty Shelby, there is a narrative in which Guyger, who intruded upon 26-year-old Botham Shem Jean’s apartment and shot him dead, is the victim. Where Jean’s death is a tragic mistake.
This is what it’s like when the person you love doesn’t survive a critical incident, Tiffany tells you. This is what the aftermath is:
It’s going to every city council meeting, demanding answers and accountability from Tulsa officials. It’s watching her family get vilified because, for the first time, a Tulsa officer had been charged for the death of an unarmed black man.
It’s giving up her other projects and interests so that Tiffany can devote “100 percent” of her time outside the clinic to fighting for police reform.
It’s helping to raise her dead brother’s children. It’s hearing Terence’s 6 year old boy—a boy who looks “just like” his father—ask, “When is my daddy going to come out of that box?” Or to hear him say, as Tiffany’s watching TV with him, “I miss Daddy.” It’s seeing her parents “lay in the bed and hold each other cry, because they’ve lost their son.”
It’s monitoring Terence’s teenage girls, keeping vigilant for signs of depression.
“I read one of my niece’s Facebook posts. She said ‘you all don’t know the pain behind my smile.’ And so I have to monitor them daily to make sure that their their mental stability is OK,” Tiffany says.
“We celebrated the one year anniversary [of his death] last year and we went to the graveyard to do a dedication of his tombstone. And those kids broke down like it had just happened,” she says.
And then it’s watching her brother’s killer—who has never apologized or shown remorse for his death— talk about “survival.”
It’s constantly correcting the narrative about her brother, hearing his life filtered through other people’s voices and biases. It’s holding on to memories of him and the life he lived, memories she fears won’t survive.
Tiffany is Terence’s twin sister. He preceded her by three minutes, and for the rest of his life would refer to her as his “little sister.” Growing up, they did everything together, Tiffany says.
“We were both in the orchestra. He played the cello, I played the violin. We were a part of a jump rope team together. I mean it was serious business,” she says. You can hear her smiling at the memory.
“[Our parents] just never separated us. You know, it was something special about twins,” she says. “August 16th, everybody knew it was Tiffany and Terence’s birthday. And we had a cake every year.”
Tiffany says they even shared that infamous sixth sense twins are said to have.
Back in 2002, when she was about 24 years old, Tiffany was attending school out of state, preparing for a major exam when she suddenly felt a searing pain in her right eye. The throbbing pain lasted all day, but she figured it was because she was tired. She had been up all night studying the day before. But at 7:00 pm that night she received a call from her father telling her that her parents were in the hospital with Terence. He had been jumped and robbed by a group of men, who beat him so badly that he lost his right eye.
“I just broke out into this major cry,” Tiffany says. “That’s what I was feeling. You know when it was happening to him, my eye was throbbing.”
It wasn’t the last time she would feel that inexplicable connection.
Fourteen years later, on Friday, Sept. 16, Tiffany was feeling off at work.
That morning, “everyone kept asking me ‘What’s wrong with you? … You just seem off,’” Tiffany says. She wasn’t sick. She wasn’t feeling particularly stressed out. Nothing was wrong. “But I had this feeling that I couldn’t explain,” she says.
One of Tiffany’s colleagues followed her into her office, and Tiffany found herself scrolling through her phone, pulling up a picture of her and her twin, and just staring at it.
“She said, ‘That’s a nice picture of of you and Terrence, what is he up to? So I said, ‘Well, he’s getting ready to start a class today, a summer class. And he’s very excited about it,” Tiffany says.
“I don’t know why I pulled that picture up, but we just stared at it and that was it. And later that night I got a call that he was dead. He was killed,” she says.
“So I don’t know if God was trying to tell me something. I just can’t explain it. And I don’t know why I pulled that picture up. I’ve never done that before, ever.”
That day, Terence was driving home from a music appreciation class at Tulsa Community College that had been cancelled due to enrollment. He didn’t find out until he arrived, ready for the first day. The schools’ professors would later tell Tiffany that Terence was disappointed, and wondered what he would do with the books he purchased.
Fifteen minutes after he left campus, Officer Shelby was on her way to a call about a domestic dispute when she saw Terence’s white truck stalled in the middle of the road. Of all the video the public has seen, there is none documenting how the exchange between Terence and Tulsa police began. What we do see is Terence being directed by officers.
We see Terence’s hands raised as he follows the officers’ directions. We see him walking toward the front of his car, then shift to his right. One officer fires his Taser. Shelby fires her gun.
Terence was shot on his right side. Tiffany says he didn’t—he couldn’t–see the bullet coming.
Tiffany knows her history.
She knows how her brother’s story fits into the larger narrative of Tulsa and its treatment of its black residents. She knows 1921 and the burning down of black Wall Street—how her great grandmother fled the mob of white rioters, Klansmen and police officers who destroyed 36 to 40 blocks of black businesses and residences in what was then the wealthiest black neighborhood in the country.
“The same culture in Tulsa that burnt down black Wall Street is the same culture that killed my twin brother, and it hasn’t changed,” Tiffany says.
But it’s one thing to see your twin brother die at the hands of a police officer. It’s one thing to lose your brother to a culture that has despised and devalued black people for hundreds of years. But then, Tiffany and the Crutcher family had to watch Terence and all the things they knew about him got lost in the re-telling of his death.
When someone Googles Terence Crutcher, the same information will get repeated: that he was 40. That he was black. That he was unarmed. And that PCP was found in his system. Tiffany doesn’t shy away from talking about her brother’s battle with addiction—Terence was never the same after losing his eye, she says.
She remembers seeing her brother laid on their father’s lap, burdened by the weight of his addiction, crying, “Dad, get this off me, get this off me. I don’t want this on me.”
But Terence’s story was bigger than that. Tiffany holds precious one of his final messages to her, a text that she returns to over and over again.
“He told me ‘Hey I’m headed to class.’ [He was] getting ready to drop some money off at dad’s house for his daughter’s slumber party. And he said, ‘Pray for me and just know I’m going to make you proud. And God’s going to get the glory out of my life,” she says.
In the hopes of fulfilling that promise, Tiffany and the Crutcher family have started a foundation in Terence’s name that provides need-based scholarships. Tiffany wants people to remember that Terence was trying to better his life, that his last day on earth was spent trying to go to a music class.
There is thing that happens when a person dies on camera, when they become a hashtag. When their name becomes a battle cry. You feel like you know them, but you don’t. With Terence, you know the sound of the chopper, the voice cutting through a police radio, saying “that looks like a bad dude.” You have seen Terence’s pixelated body on a loop, over and over, the moment where he gets shot crystallized forever.
But you don’t know Terence Crutcher. You see the car but you don’t know what’s inside it. You know what was in found in his blood. You don’t know where he left. You don’t know where he was going.
So you ask Tiffany who her brother was, and this is what she tells you: That Terence loved to cook. That he thought he was the “rib king,” and that everyone loved his chicken spaghetti. That their mother called Terence her “compassionate son.” That her family would wake up and Terence would have someone on the couch with a blanket because they didn’t have anywhere to go. Right before he was killed, Tiffany says, Terence would visit elderly homes and sing—a gift that had passed her over, she laughs. He would visit one particular aunt with multiple sclerosis and sing “Amazing Grace” to lift her spirits. He had hoped to sing at his daughters’ weddings.
There was no gun in Terence Crutcher’s car the day Betty Shelby killed him, but there were gospel CDs, textbooks and his book bag.
And today, a Sunday, in the church Terence Crutcher attended, there is a spot kept empty for him, to preserve the memory of the man that sang and prayed there.
“His church family, they miss him,” Tiffany says. “The choir members, they miss him, you know. They don’t let anybody sit in his spot at the church, because that’s his spot. That’s where he stood.”