TULSA, Okla. (AP) — An Oklahoma county will pay $6 million to settle a federal civil rights lawsuit filed by the family of an unarmed black man who was fatally shot by a white former sheriff’s reserve deputy, according to court documents filed Friday.
Tulsa County commissioners on Feb. 26 approved the settlement with the estate of Eric Harris, who was fatally shot in a Tulsa street by ex-volunteer deputy Robert Bates during an illegal gun sales sting. Harris was already being restrained by deputies when Bates shot Harris. Part of the incident was captured on a camera mounted in a pair of a deputy’s glasses.
The 76-year-old Bates, who said he confused his stun gun with his handgun when he shot Harris in April 2015, was convicted of second-degree manslaughter. He was released in October after serving less than half of his four-year sentence. Bates asked a state appeals court this week to rehear an appeal he lost last month.
“This will send a message that not everybody gets away with it,” said Harris’ brother, Andre Harris, in an interview Friday. “I hope this (settlement) is a deterrent.”
Guy Fortney, an attorney for Bates, didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment on the settlement.
Sheriff Vic Regalado said in a statement he believes the settlement “will allow the process of healing to continue for the Harris family, the citizens of Tulsa County and the hard working men and women of the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office.”
Harris family attorney Dan Smolen said Harris’ legacy brings hope for “some measure of justice and accountability” when a law officer “violates the rights and takes the life of an African-American citizen.”
“Eric’s death, and the profound government corruption uncovered in the wake of his death, served as a wake-up call for Tulsa,” Smolen said.
The Harris shooting drew thousands of county residents to petition for a grand jury to investigate allegations that Bates was unqualified to serve as a deputy but kept on the force because of his friendship with indicted ex-Sheriff Stanley Glanz.
Glanz, a fishing buddy of Bates, was indicted in September 2015, accused of failing to release a 2009 internal report that raised serious concerns about Bates’ ability to do its job.
The memo, which was leaked to reporters in the weeks after Harris was killed, alleged superiors knew Bates didn’t have enough training but pressured others to look the other way because of the wealthy insurance executive’s relationship with the sheriff and close ties to the agency, which included donating thousands of dollars in cash, vehicles and equipment to the department.
Glanz eventually pleaded no contest in 2016 to a charge of refusing to perform official duty for not releasing the 2009 training memo on Bates and was sentenced to a year of jail time, which was suspended.
Harris’ death also uncovered a law enforcement agency in disarray.
Consultants hired by the county issued a scathing 238-page report found that the sheriff’s office suffered from a “system-wide failure of leadership and supervision” and said the agency had been in a “perceptible decline” for more than a decade.
Shortcomings in its reserve deputy program were just the most-visible signs of trouble within the agency, it said.
While Andre Harris told the AP he was glad for a settlement, he doubted whether it would truly improve long-simmering tensions between black residents in Tulsa and the police. Those date to a 1921 race riot in which hundreds of black residents were killed and thousands more injured.
“It’s sad to say, but this (settlement) ain’t going to stop this,” he said Friday. “It can slow it down, but I don’t think the relationship between law enforcement and African-Americans is going to go away over a $6 million settlement.”