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'Buy-a-Badge' Programs Are a Recipe for Disaster, and Eric Harris Paid the Price

[VIDEO SCREENSHOT] Deadly Police Shooting: "Oh! I shot him! I'm sorry."
[VIDEO SCREENSHOT] Deadly Police Shooting: "Oh! I shot him! I'm sorry."
Ryan Kiesel,
Executive Director,
ACLU of Oklahoma
Brady Henderson,
Legal Director,
ACLU of Oklahoma
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April 15, 2015

Bob Bates’ badge looked real enough, but the man wearing it had less than half the training of his fellow deputies, far less accountability to his supervisors, and a gun that was just as deadly. Real guns loaded with real bullets, but behind a badge that was bought rather than earned. This is a big part of the reason that Eric Harris is dead today.

Bob Bates, a reserve deputy in the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office and a wealthy 73-year-old insurance executive, shot Eric Harris accidentally while he was supposedly reaching for his Taser. Although Bob Bates is being charged with manslaughter, he didn’t commit this act in a silo. He was placed in an extremely dangerous situation when he was armed and unprepared.

Who placed him there? The Tulsa County sheriff.

Charging Bates with manslaughter, albeit important, doesn’t properly address the root cause of what happened to Eric Harris. What we should be talking about are the unofficial “Buy-a-Badge” programs that exist all over Oklahoma.

Buy-a-Badge programs effectively deputize random civilians to participate in law enforcement action. These programs exist in both Tulsa and Oklahoma counties. To be clear, we’re not talking about all-volunteer reserve programs. Getting rid of those is akin to eliminating volunteer fire departments — we need community members to participate in fostering safe and healthy communities, and many reserve deputies and police serve honorably and faithfully.

However, there are sheriffs who pervert the reservist laws by using their discretion to name political allies, friends, big donors, and cronies as reserve deputies and then basically let them do whatever they want with little or no accountability. This process invariably attracts wealthy enthusiasts who want to play cop. To them this means lots of driving fast, sirens blaring, and pulling weapons. A reserve deputy should never be in a special operations position with a violent crime task force like Bates was, no matter how many cars he’s donated to the sheriff’s office or how many junkets he’s paid for.

To put it in perspective, reservists are supposed to receive at least 240 hours of training. According to the Tulsa Sheriff, Bates had that much or more, but professional officers are supposed to receive at least 600 hours just to be certified at the “basic level” under Oklahoma law. Even more concerning, sources within the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office are now blowing the whistle on possible falsification of Bates’ training records, meaning even the meager instruction the sheriff claims Bates received may have been faked. The growing scandal surrounding Bob Bates and the resulting death of Eric Harris is a perfect example of a good policy initiative perverted by a seemingly corrupt official, with horrific results.

In our estimation, citizens deserve police departments in which high-risk frontline positions are staffed by professionals who are held accountable to the public, not a sheriff’s personal friends playing cop.

We have no objection if someone wants to volunteer to help his or her fellow citizens. But to give some volunteers weapons and badges they did not earn and put them in situations like the one that ended the life of Eric Harris is a reckless move. Beyond reckless, Buy-a-Badge programs are a recipe for disaster.

In addition to the catastrophic results of the Buy-a-Badge program, the video that recorded the arrest and shooting of Mr. Harris also exposed the callous and dehumanizing approach of at least one Tulsa County law enforcement officer. That officer responded to Mr. Harris’s inability to catch his breath after being shot in the back by saying, “Fuck your breath.” In response to this officer’s language, the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office should discipline this officer and demonstrate that this barbaric attitude will not be tolerated.

Moving forward, the ACLU of Oklahoma is calling for an immediate end to all Buy-a-Badge programs across Oklahoma, including the programs in Tulsa and Oklahoma counties. In addition, all law enforcement volunteers should have commonsense regulations imposed on their service. Oklahoma sheriff’s departments need to rethink the dangerous “pay to play cop” practice that places friends and campaign donors into law enforcement roles that require the consistent professionalism and proficiency of properly trained professional officers.Law enforcement agencies throughout Oklahoma also need to reassess the costs and consequences of overuse of force on citizens.

The video of Harris’s killing not only shows a grave and serious offense, it raises another question: When Harris was already being held on the ground and no longer fleeing deputies, why was it necessary to launch metal hooks carrying 50,000 volts into his body? If Bob Bates had reached for his Taser instead of his gun, he might not have committed the alleged manslaughter he’s now charged with, but his use of force would still have been unreasonable, irrational, and illegal.

What happened to Eric Harris was not just “a mistake,” it was the result of a series of choices that show a reckless disregard for human dignity and human life among Tulsa County officials who swore to serve and protect all Oklahomans.

CORRECTION: The original post reported that reserve deputies are supposed to receive 140 hours of training. It is 240 hours. We regret the error.

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