Miami Cop Union Chief Says Tulsa Shooting of Terrence Crutcher "Justified"

Update: The officer who shot Crutcher has been charged with manslaughter.

Terence Crutcher, a 40-year-old, black father of four, was killed by police in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this past Fridayaway. He was shot to death, on video, after walking peacefully with his hands raised away from three cops. Crutcher, a Christian who regularly sang in church, had stopped his SUV in the middle of a street — his family maintains he simply needed help fixing his car, and that the police who arrived to check on him took his life for no justifiable reason. He was not carrying a gun, but police say they found PCP in his car.

Police-reform advocates have asked that officers nationwide learn from Crutcher's shooting and use the ordeal as an example of poor police conduct. But Miami's candid police union chief, Javier Ortiz, an active officer with a significant amount of influence over the way Miami police operate, seems to disagree. Commenting about the shooting on Facebook yesterday, Ortiz instead wrote that the shooting was "justified."

"He didn't have his hands up after all like the media is reporting," Ortiz wrote. "#unfortunate, but justified."

Reached on his cell phone yesterday, Ortiz said he was not commenting about the shooting.

Ortiz, the head of Miami's Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 20, routinely uses his social media presence to voluntarily defend cops involved in controversial shootings. When Alton Sterling was killed in Louisiana in July, Ortiz called that shooting "more than justified." When North Miami Police shot Charles Kinsey, an unarmed behavioral technician helping an autistic man, Ortiz called that shooting media "sensationalism." His critics have argued that Ortiz's comments reflect poorly on Miami cops and set a poor example for the conduct of other officers. Ortiz disagrees.

(This year, he was sued for an alleged wrongful arrest of a man on the Rickenbacker Causeway and for allegedly beating a man during the 2013 Miami Heat championship celebration. He denies both claims.)

This week brought yet another controversial killing by police, which meant Miamians could likely expect another comment from Ortiz. Tulsa Police released video of Crutcher's death Monday: The footage shows Crutcher engaging in a short, calm exchange with three cops, who all had their guns trained on him. Though Crutcher appeared to be ignoring the officers' commands, he was clearly responding peacefully to their orders. After Crutcher walked to his SUV with his hands raised, police shot him dead. The video has made waves in the media, and police-reform advocates say it's another example of cops rushing to shoot a black man.

The Tulsa Police Department has opened a criminal investigation into the shooting, and the U.S. Department of Justice has opened a separate civil rights inquiry into the ordeal, according to the New York Times.

But online, Ortiz seemed to defend the officers involved. In one post early yesterday, he said that the shooting was a "truly unfortunate incident" and that "if the police officer was in the wrong, she will go to prison." But he then offered a multiparagraph explanation for why the cops might have been in the right.

"Just because someone is UNARMED," he wrote, "doesn't mean you can't use deadly force."

"For those that know nothing about police work, if you pose a threat that can kill an officer (reaching in a car that can have something that can kill me and your [sic] disobeying commands), the use of a firearm is justified," he wrote.

In the post, he implied that Crutcher could have been reaching into his car when the cops shot him. He argued this might have justified the shooting.

"You'll see something dangling out of the front driver's window (meaning it was DOWN)," he wrote. "If the subject attempted or reached into that window and it was perceived he was grabbing a weapon, the officer based on their training and experience may articulate why a firearm was used to subdue him."

Ortiz then added that if Crutcher "reached into the car after disobeying police commands, he made a poor decision that costed [sic] him his life. Cops deserve to go home at the end of their shift. Drivers have the right to go home unharmed by the police."

Lawyers for Betty Shelby — the officer who shot Crutcher — have also argued that Crutcher was reaching into his car when he was shot. But the video appears to show that the windows in Crutcher's car were rolled up when he was killed and that blood was smeared on the windowpane.

"If confirmed by police, the admission would eliminate one of the chief justifications for police using deadly force against Crutcher," the Washington Post wrote yesterday. Lawyers for the Crutcher family insist the window was rolled up.

Crutcher's family also maintains he stopped in the middle of the road simply because of car trouble. Many online have argued that had Crutcher been white, the cops might have helped him move his SUV out of the middle of the road.

The video shows that Crutcher was shot with a stun gun immediately before being shot but that the Taser did not subdue him — Ortiz argues this happens with some regularity in police work. 

"By the way, my friend tasered a suspect once and the bad guy ripped off the prongs, kissed them (while they were on), charged at the officer and nearly killed him," he wrote. "The bad guy was UNARMED." (It's important to note that Crutcher wasn't charging at anyone when he was killed.)

Ortiz then used another controversial Miami shooting to justify this one: In 2012, Miami Police found a naked Rudy Eugene chewing off parts of a man's face near the MacArthur Causeway. Eugene was shot dead at the scene.

"We had a guy eat someone's face, got tasered and kept eating the man's face," Ortiz wrote. "We shot and killed him. The bad guy was UNARMED."

But that shooting has also been criticized: After 19-year-old Austin Harrouff was brought in alive after getting caught eating another man's face this summer, activists said the way Miami Police treated Eugene was a clear example of racial bias.

A November 2015 study estimated that in Miami-Dade County, unarmed black individuals are 22 times likelier to be shot than unarmed white ones.

Instead of asking why the cops shot Crutcher, Ortiz instead asked why Crutcher seemed to disobey police orders.

"When I get stopped by the police, I follow commands even if they're in the wrong," he said. "Why? Because I can clear up the air or get justice (in a courtroom) after the encounter."

But later yesterday, after Tulsa Police reported that PCP was found in Crutcher's car, Ortiz posted a photo of Crutcher's old mug shot.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.