ARLINGTON – It’s been a month since an unnamed Arlington police officer shot and killed O’Shae Terry as Terry tried to flee from a traffic stop, but several questions have still gone unanswered.
The Star-Telegram sent the 30 minutes of footage from body-worn cameras and dashcam footage that the police department released to several professors in law and criminal justice to ask for their opinions.
A few declined to comment on the case because of one particular unanswered question. Another spoke about the case in terms of case law. Another said he doesn’t understand why the shooting even happened.
Questions sent to the Arlington Police Department about the case and status of the officer who shot Terry were not answered because the case is still under investigation, spokesperson Karen Stanback said.
Terry, 24, was stopped by a female officer at about 1:45 p.m. Sept. 1 in the 2800 block of South Bowen Road for an expired registration sticker.
After a second officer showed up and stood on the passenger side of the SUV, the woman officer — who has also not been identified — told Terry that she smelled marijuana and they were going to search his car.
She returned to her patrol car as the male officer stood by the passenger door and talked to Terry.
About 10 minutes into the stop, Terry started to roll up both windows.
“Hey, hey, hey, hey!” the officer says in the bodycam video. He grabs the top of the passenger-side window with his left hand, steps onto the foot rail, puts his right arm inside the vehicle, then brings it back out to reach for his gun.
The officer yells for Terry to stop. Terry responds twice that he isn’t going anywhere and that he isn’t going to jail.
As the SUV moves forward, the officer shoots inside the vehicle four times.
One of the men can be heard crying, and the passenger starts to yell at Terry to stop the SUV.
The SUV crosses over two lanes of traffic, veers up a curb and onto a sidewalk where the officer falls off.
The vehicle eventually stops in the 2200 block of California Lane. Terry died later at Medical City Arlington Hospital.
According to an account by the passenger relayed through Terry’s mother, he had to remove Terry’s foot from the gas pedal and press the brake himself to stop the vehicle.
After searching the SUV, officers found 1.09 pounds of marijuana, 7 grams of Ecstasy pills, a .40-caliber Glock handgun and an extended 29-round magazine, Arlington police said.
Attorney Lee Merritt for the Terry family said the items were found in a bag in the backseat of the vehicle and were not a threat to the officers.
The Star-Telegram interviewed at length two experts in policing and law.
The first was David Klinger, a professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The second was Dr. Cara Rabe-Hemp, a professor in the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences at Illinois State University.
▪ Does it matter that a drug and gun was found in the vehicle after the stop?
This was Klinger’s first question, which he was able to answer immediately.
“The answer is no,” he said. “Because it was discovered after the fact. We judge a police officer’s behavior based upon the knowledge that he or she has at the time. We can’t bring things in afterward just to justify it.”
The video speaks for itself, he said. At no point does Terry or his passenger reach for the gun.
Merritt echoed Klinger’s comments the week after Terry was killed.
“It’s important to know how little a factor it played in this,” Merritt said. “This was another shooting of an unarmed black man.”
▪ What did the officers know about Terry and his passenger prior to Terry taking off?
Several professors of law and criminal justice that the Star-Telegram contacted declined to comment about the shooting because this question hasn’t been answered.
“That’s a key piece of information,” said Michael Smith, professor and chairman of the Department of Criminal Justice at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
He wasn’t alone in his thought. Rabe-Hemp also brought it up.
Speaking in terms of the law and similar case rulings, Rabe-Hemp said police cannot use deadly force when someone is fleeing from the officer, unless the officer has probable cause that the suspect is a danger to the public.
“I didn’t know if in this department, if they wore ear pieces and if the communication was going back to him,” Rabe-Hemp said. “That would play a role in the perception of the officer’s danger.”
“The only reason you’re allowed to shoot somebody is when you’re defending your life, the life of a third party or if you’re stopping the flight of a violent felon,” he said.
Both men in the car have previous arrests, but not for violent crimes.
Terry’s criminal history in Tarrant County is an arrest for possession of marijuana and evading arrest. Posts on social media identified Terry’s passenger as Terrance Harmon, 24. His criminal history in Tarrant County is burlary and possession of marijuana.
Merritt said at a news conference after the shooting that Terry was not a threat.
“The officer simply needed to watch them drive away,” he said. “We expect law enforcement officers to investigate crimes, and sometimes when they investigate crimes they will run into people who have broken the law. We only allow deadly force in very limited circumstances and this was not one of them.”
Merritt agreed that Terry made several mistakes, like not having his car registered and turning on the vehicle, but said that none of those actions should have ended in his death.
▪ What training has the officer received?
Klinger said the shooting brings up a question about the department’s policy and training.
“Why in the world would any police officer believe it would be a good thing to jump on the running board of a car that is wanted for nothing serious and try to stop it?” Klinger asked. “I cannot believe that officer was trained that way. There could be a situation where an officer would do that, but for a person who is going to pull away from a vehicle stop because perhaps there’s marijuana, that makes absolutely no sense at all.”
About seven hours after the shooting, Arlington police released a statement that said, “The officer reached inside the passenger window with his left arm and began to give verbal commands as the window continued rolling up. The driver began to drive forward with the officer on the passenger side of the SUV. The officer withdrew a firearm and discharged it striking the driver as the vehicle continued in motion and driving down the street.”
In the video, it appears the officer’s left hand is holding the window.
“At some point (the officer) has to know that the window is going up and if at some point, his arm got caught, it was his own foolish fault for sticking his arm in there,” Klinger said. “The video speaks for itself.”
▪ What was the officer’s justification in using deadly force?
Klinger said it’s important to find out what the officer’s justification was for using deadly force. What information the department has released doesn’t entirely answer that.
“Based on what we know, why did this officer think (Terry) was a violent threat? (The officer) is the one who put himself on that vehicle,” he said. “If the passenger had grabbed the officer and was holding onto him, then we’d have a very different scenario because then we’d have an assault that’s leading to the serious endangerment of the officer. The officer is the one who did everything that created this situation.”
Rabe-Hemp said it could be difficult to determine what the officer perceived as a threat. She compared it to other cases of officers shooting unarmed African-American men.
“If we look at Philando Castile in Minnesota, they were able to argue that there was a good reason for the officer to be fearful,” she said. “That there was a gun in the car was one of the reasons, even though in that case (Castile) self disclosed that he had a gun and that it was legal. That seemed to make a difference (with the jury) on the reasonableness of fearful of death. That might make a difference here.”
She also brought up the Supreme Court 1989 Graham V. Connor decision, in which an objective reasonableness standard should apply to officer-involved shootings.
“They acknowledge that police make split-second decisions and they have to be evaluated not in how we look at it the next morning, but in the reasonableness of the officer’s decision at the time,” she said. “We have the benefit of 20/20 hindsight. It’s so difficult to be successful trying a case for murder or manslaughter because they’re going to tell the jury to interpret the details of the case based on what’s reasonable to the officer in the moment.”
‘His life mattered’
After his death, Terry’s mother created a GoFundMe page to help raise money for his funeral.
There, she shared a glimpse of Terry’s life and the confusion she faced after his killing.
“I wish no parent ever had to feel that pain. I raised O’Shea on my own since he was three years old — providing for him and his siblings by working in the medical field,” Sherely Woods wrote. “O’Shea wasn’t always perfect but his life mattered.”
She said her son loved to make people smile and he was generous.
“He was industrious — teaching himself about auctions and buying/selling cars,” Woods wrote. “He had plans to grow his business and start a family and live a complete life and I planned to be there to witness it all.”
In the post, she has questioned when the first shot was fired.
“According to (the passenger), Terry did not move the car forward until after he had been shot and he was not in control of the vehicle,” she wrote.