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Elderly cop charged with manslaughter after accidental shooting

Robert Bates
Robert Bates

Prosecutors have charged a volunteer law enforcement officer over the death of a man who was shot dead as he lay on the ground at the officer's feet.

Robert Bates, a 73-year-old insurance executive who was volunteering on an undercover operation in Oklahoma, mistakenly pulled out his handgun instead of a stun gun and shot the suspect as he struggled with deputies, officials said.

Bates, who is white, was charged with second-degree manslaughter involving culpable negligence for the death of Eric Harris, 44, who was black. If convicted, he could face up to four years in prison.

Eric Harris

It was the latest fatal shooting by a police officer to draw national attention after months of investigations and protests of other deaths in Ferguson, Missouri, New York City, South Carolina and elsewhere.

Many of the cases have stirred debate about the treatment of black men and boys by US law enforcement agencies, but Andre Harris, the Oklahoma victim's brother, told a news conference he did not believe the shooting was racially motivated.

The Oklahoma case, however, has raised questions about the use of volunteer officers to supplement full-time police.

A video of the incident, shot by a deputy and released at the request of the victim's family, shows a deputy chase and tackle Mr Harris, who they said tried to sell an illegal gun to an undercover officer.

As the deputy subdues Mr Harris on the ground, a gunshot rings out and a man says: "Oh, I shot him. I'm sorry."

Mr Harris screams:

"He shot me. Oh, my God," and a deputy replies: "You f****** ran. Shut the f*** up."

When Mr Harris says he is losing his breath, a deputy replies: "F*** your breath."

Mr Harris was treated by medics at the scene on April 2 and died in hospital in the city of Tulsa.

The family said in a statement that they were "saddened, shocked, confused and disturbed".

"Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all of this is the inhumane and malicious treatment of Eric after he was shot," the family wrote.

"These deputies treated Eric as less than human. They treated Eric as if his life had no value."

The use of reserve officers is commonplace across Oklahoma and much of the US. Cities and counties often turn to them for extra manpower because of a lack of resources and tight budgets. They are sometimes used to free up regular officers to concentrate on high-priority duties.

Reserve deputies are permitted to carry firearms but have far less training than regular officers.

Bates, who was briefly a full-time officer with the Tulsa Police Department from 1964 to 1965, is now an insurance executive who updates his certification every year, said Tulsa County sheriff's spokesman Shannon Clark.

Bates was acting in a support role during the sting operation and does not typically confront suspects, Ms Clark said.

Tulsa County Sheriff Stanley Glanz has described Bates as a personal friend, and records show he has been a generous donor to the department since he became a reserve deputy in 2008.