Estate of Unarmed Black Man Killed by Reserve Deputy to Receive $6 Million

The award was the largest excessive force settlement in Oklahoma's history.


(Reuters) — Officials in Tulsa County, Okla., have agreed to pay a record $6 million to the estate of an unarmed Black man who was fatally shot in 2015 by a white volunteer sheriff’s deputy who thought his pistol was a Taser, federal court documents showed.

Robert Bates, an insurance executive who was a reserve deputy, was convicted of manslaughter for killing Eric Harris in an incident that was caught on video and was one of a series that raised questions about racial bias in U.S. policing.

Prosecutors said Bates’ actions were tantamount to professional negligence and in May 2016 he was sentenced to four years in prison, the maximum term allowed.

The settlement was revealed in documents filed on Friday with the U.S. District Court in Oklahoma. Lawyers for both sides said the award was the largest excessive force settlement in the state’s history.

The agreement concluded a civil rights lawsuit filed in January 2016 by an administrator for Harris’ estate that accused Bates of unreasonable and excessive use of deadly force and held current and former Tulsa County sheriff’s officials responsible.

“This settlement ends a long and tumultuous road for the Harris family,” said a statement emailed on Saturday by Daniel Smolen, an attorney for the Harris estate administrator.

The incident prompted the suspension of the reserve deputy program, a grand jury investigation of the sheriff’s department and the resignation of the sheriff at the time, Stanley Glanz.

Scott Wood, the lawyer representing current and former sheriff’s officials in the case, said the new sheriff, Vic Regalado, had been anxious to put this matter behind him.

“And not just him, the department as well,” Wood said by telephone on Saturday.

Bates, who is in his 70s, had been on patrol with other deputies during a sting operation targeting illegal guns when he shot Harris, 44, who was on the ground.

In video played during Bates’ trial, a deputy is shown subduing Harris and Bates is heard saying “Taser, Taser.” There is a gunshot, then Bates is heard saying “Oh, I shot him. I’m sorry.” Harris died later at a Tulsa hospital.

Wood said the county’s reserve deputy program has been restored with more stringent controls and procedures, including that reservists now ride with full-time deputies.

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