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Written in collaboration by community leaders Rev. Gerald Davis and Laura Bellis, Nate Morris and members of The United League for Social Action (TULSA) www.weareTULSA.org
“Where you go is up to you. Jail, hospital or morgue. Doesn’t matter to us, because we’re going home.”
As recently as this past April, these words were hanging on a poster in a small building on the Tulsa Police Training Center campus in North Tulsa. Immediately to its right hangs another poster – this one showing the barrel of a loaded gun pointed directly at whomever may be passing by it. “Not Today!!” the poster reads, “I will not be caught unaware!”.
Outside of the building in an expansive, adjacent field sits an intricate shooting range where officers hone their skills in the use of deadly force. On the chain-link fence enclosing this field is yet another sign which reads: “Not if, but when. Be prepared”. These spaces are all removed from the part of campus most frequently accessed by public community members.
It is these very messages, community leaders argue, that perpetuate the false narrative that Black citizens of North Tulsa are inherently threatening to the safety of police and allow for men like Terence Crutcher to be deemed “bad dudes” based upon their appearance from hundreds of yards away.
Over the past four years, following the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO, the tensions between police and communities of color that once went under recognized have been unable to remain hidden in the public eye. White Americans, whose privilege has long allowed them to be blinded to the realities many of their neighbors faced, have now been forced to begin reconciling with this long-standing truth.
These intensified strains, coupled with a systemically enhanced focus on self-preservation, have elevated fear within the police force. It is critical to acknowledge that serving as a police officer requires one to assume a level of personal risk unmatched in most other professions. Most officers enter into the role to serve and better their community. Due to consistent cuts to community resources, they are faced with the growing challenge of assuming responsibilities outside of their core role which they may not be fully equipped or supported to manage.
With this information, it is critical to acknowledge that Tulsa officers serve communities that are also severely under resourced, and have been for generations. Residents in these communities – our friends, neighbors and fellow citizens – are also forced to live with a very real and justifiable fear that any given interaction with an officer may be their last. This is a fear that cannot be shed like a uniform when they arrive home at the end of the day.
This fear is justifiable, not because they believe every officer personally seeks to do them harm, but because they know the truth that history and numbers both tell.
Organized policing did not begin with the inception of the nation. For decades following the American Revolution, communities monitored and resolved issues amongst themselves. According to comprehensive research from Eastern Kentucky University, the modern day American police force found its genesis in the “slave patrol” of the south. Beginning in 1704 in the Carolinas, groups of generally white men were assembled as local vigilante organizations with the sole purpose of “disciplining” enslaved peoples, “apprehending and returning” to bondage those who attempted to escape for freedom, and actively working to quell potential uprisings.
Following the Civil War, this history of oppression within law enforcement became increasingly entrenched throughout the eras of Reconstruction, the enforcement of Jim Crow and segregation, the destruction of Greenwood in the Tulsa Race Massacre, the push back against Civil Rights and the proliferation of mass incarceration in the name of the “War on Drugs”.
The city of Tulsa has recently named community policing as a priority. In order for that to be realized in a manner that truly serves the whole community and begins rectifying ongoing, centuries-old injustices, both the city and, more crucially, the police department itself must intentionally grapple with this history and their role in its legacy. Undoubtedly, the modern-day work of policing organizations has divested significantly from its original purpose. As with the rest of society, however, systems of oppression are able to change and adapt when they are not confronted.
According to the Washington Post, as of July 22, 2018 twenty civilians have been killed in officer related shootings in the state of Oklahoma, including three in Tulsa. Of those, six were either unarmed or suffered a known mental illness. While one officer has tragically lost their life in Oklahoma in the line of duty this year, it was not the result of a civilian interaction.
In addition to having the highest rate of incarceration per-capita in the developed world, these figures indicate that Oklahoma is currently second the nation in per-capita officer involved shooting deaths, behind Idaho.
For members of the Tulsa community, in particular members of our city’s Black and Hispanic/Latinx communities, these numbers, juxtaposed with our history and current political climate, hit far too close to home. The 2018 Tulsa Equality Indicators Report quantified what was already known: Black youth in Tulsa are three times more likely to face arrest and nearly three times more likely to be subject to use of force from an officer than white youth. Mothers and fathers alike in our community are forced to teach their children how to operate in a world where their skin color causes them to be perceived as a threat. Our kids must be taught how to not be fatally labeled a “bad dude” from a single glance.
In his poem “How to Raise a Black Son in America”, renowned writer and academic Clint Smith refers to this as “the talk”. Smith recalls that he and his friends would get this talk from their parents when “we became old enough to be mistaken for a nail ready to be hammered to the ground, when people made our melanin synonymous with something to be feared.” His parents, he said, gave him this talk “simply because they wanted to keep us alive.”
Black fathers and mothers do not choose to raise their children in a nation where they must teach them how to code switch they way they talk, walk or dress simply to survive – they are forced to do so. For Black Americans, for Black Tulsans, concern, fear and distrust are derived from a recognition of historical injustices, current truths and lived experiences. These realities cannot be dismissed and derided as a “focusing on the past instead of the future”. Rather, they must be acknowledged and understood by the leadership of the Tulsa Police Department, particularly in North Tulsa.
The department has named that it seeks to adopt a guardian mindset by truly investing in, intentionally protecting and intimately knowing the communities it serves. However, the culture of a “warrior” mindset enumerated in these posters is and will remain pervasive until it and the history that birthed it are no longer ignored.
There is tremendous opportunity for change in this city. There is a chance to tear down what is broken and build something new – something better – for all Tulsans.
The North Tulsa community has done its part. Community leaders have told their stories, asked for a seat at the table, sought opportunities for understanding and worked diligently to try and eradicate the need for “the talk”.
Now, the onus rests on the shoulders of the Tulsa Police Department. Until the signs mentioned in this article, signs occupying the spaces where officers learn how to serve, signs intentionally kept out of public view, signs which perpetuate the mentality that members of the community are an inherent threat are removed, progress will be permanently hindered.
Residents of North Tulsa, fathers and mothers, deserve better than the perpetuation of a system that seeks to limit what is possible for them and their children. Tulsa officers deserve also deserve better than to be trained in a manner that can lead to the dehumanization of their own neighbors, painting them as the enemy. The messaging in these posters only furthers this “us vs. them” narrative, causing officers to take on undue mental stress and enter into communities already on edge and prepared for resistance. In turn, these communities then have the burden thrust upon them to operate with caution in order to avoid conflict with officers.
Imagine what could change if that narrative was shifted.
While removing a poster is, on its face, a miniscule effort, shifting the narrative for our law enforcement officers surrounding who they serve is a crucial stone on the path toward reconciliation.
We are hopeful that the leadership of TPD in North Tulsa has the willingness to listen to the community they serve and take this small step.