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Why Was the 73-Year-Old Reserve Deputy Who Fatally Shot Eric Harris in Oklahoma Even Carrying a Gun?

A shooting in Tulsa raises questions about how a senior citizen who headed up Sheriff Stanley Glanz's re-election campaign was in a position to end a life.

by Allie Conti
15 April 2015, 5:00am

Robert Bates. Photo courtesy Tulsa County Sheriff's Department

Eric Harris sprinted underneath an Oklahoma sky that looked straight out of the movie Twister. Trailing behind were cops who said he had sold a firearm to an undercover officer. One took him down. Moments later, a 73-year-old reserve deputy named Robert Bates pulled out his handgun and shot Harris in the back at close range.

"He shot me! He shot me, man!" the 44-year-old can be heard yelling in video taken April 2 but only released to the public a week later. "Oh my God. I'm losing my breath."

"I shot him!" Bates exclaims, realizing his mistake. "I'm sorry."

On Monday, Bates, a former insurance executive and buddy of Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz, was indicted for second-degree manslaughter. On Tuesday, he surrendered at the Tulsa County Jail. Meanwhile, the cops are sticking with the story that he had mistaken his handgun for a Taser by accident.

"He made an error," Sheriff Glanz told local paper Tulsa World. "How many errors are made in an operating room every week?"

At first brush, the incident seems like just another instance of a white cop freaking out and shooting a black man dead—whether by accident or not. But Harris's family says that the case doesn't have anything to do with race.

Regardless of whether that's true, the Tulsa tragedy poses a question unique to the recent string of shooting deaths: What, exactly, was a senior citizen civilian doing with a gun?

There are approximately 140 reserve deputies in Tulsa County, Meredith Baker, general counsel to Sheriff Glanz, explained to me in an email. All of them are equipped to carry both Tasers and guns, and Bates was assisting with the Violent Crimes Task Force on the day of the incident. That number isn't totally unusual, according to Doug Wyllie, editor-in-chief of the cop forum PoliceOne.com. The economic downturn forced a big increase in reserve officers, whose assistance has helped some departments avoid closing entirely in recent years, Wyllie said.

However, the budget for the Tulsa County Sheriff's Department has actually been on the uptick since Bates came on board in 2009, records show. The department's budget for the 2009-2010 fiscal year was $8.6 million, according to county records. In 2010-2011 it was nearly $9.1 million. That same number for 2014-2015 was $9.8 million.

If concerns about money don't explain why a 73-year-old was assisting on the Violent Crimes Task Force, politics might.

According to an April 2010 Tulsa World story that is not available online, Sheriff Glanz spent more than $12,000 in county funds to take Bates and a chief deputy to a five-day conference of the National Sheriff's Association that was being held in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The county footed the bill for airfare, meals, and accommodations at the Harbor Beach Marriott Resort & Spa. At the time, Glanz told the local paper that Bates had been assisting with the drug task force for about a year and a half and "as a reward I asked him if he would like to go."

Bates also donated several cars to the department. In 2012, he even headed up Glanz's re-election campaign and donated $2,500 to the cause.

According to Tulsa County Sheriff's Department Major Shannon Clark, "There are lots of wealthy people in the reserve program. Many of them make donations of items. That's not unusual at all." She even told the LA Times, "He isn't the only millionaire we've got."

But Wyllie of PoliceOne says that while it might be normal in Tulsa, the trend there doesn't extend nationwide.

"That type of cronyism isn't common at all," he told me. "The programs that I'm aware of are actually really very stringent and highly selective and in many cases the reservists do more training than the full-time counterparts, because they're the people who wanna get on the job. They wanna become more attractive job candidates, so they're eager to be the best cop on the shift."

In an interview this week with the Tulsa World, a reporter raised concerns to Sheriff Glanz that Bates was too old to be a wielding cop. In response, he whipped out his cell phone to show off a picture of him and Bates hanging out an area lake.

"Bob and I both love to fish," Glanz explained. "Is it wrong to have a friend?"

Follow Allie Conti on Twitter.

Tagged:
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Robert Bates