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By: BWST Editorial Board
For eight months, Tulsa city councilors have been deliberating around one particular issue: whether or not to hold public hearings about Tulsa Police Department data showing racially biased policing practices in local law enforcement.
On Wednesday, March 13th, that deliberation comes to an end as the city council holds a final vote. Community members are expected to attend the meeting to make one last call for councilors to move forward with the hearings.
Some counselors have expressed concerns that holding public hearings would be “a slippery slope”, saying it would give the city council additional power it does not currently wield.
In reality, these concerns are unfounded and based in misinformation pushed by special interest groups. Voting to hold public hearings would not enhance the power of the council, but rather would simply be the council committing to engage in a deeper discussion around disparities in Tulsa that have gone unresolved for far too long.
Public hearings on policing practices are far from unprecedented. In fact, during the last few months of 2018, cities like Baltimore, Portland, Chicago and Columbia, Missouri all held their own form of these hearings.
Following the death of Freddie Gray and the uprising in 2015, Baltimore’s police station has been under a federal microscope. As part of a consent decree, the city’s police department holds quarterly open, public meetings to hear community concerns and address areas in need of change.
Beginning in February of 2018, the city of Portland, Oregon also began holding monthly public meetings. These ongoing meetings take place before the city’s civilian oversight committee as a part of a Department of Justice settlement agreement. That settlement found a culture in the department of wrongfully using excessive force against individuals with mental illness.
Late last October in Chicago, following a “scathing” report from the DoJ showing evidence of racially biased policing practices and excessive use of force, the city held a series of nearly six hour long hearings. At these hearings, every member of the public present was able to stand before a federal judge and share their stories and perspectives on the need for policing reform in the city. This community feedback was used to help shape new policies to create change.
Earlier that same month in Columbia, Missouri, a community-driven report authored by a police officer, a school principal, a community activist and a human rights commission member served as the pinnacle in the long call for hearings into the need for stronger community policing practices in the city. Following what was reported as an eight-hour long council meeting, elected officials relented to public pressure and approved public hearings into the report.
According to various news reports, within months of these hearings being approved, the department saw the departure of its police chief, an open invitation to community members to work with police to help solve issues of community policing and, according to one longtime city resident, “more community policing in three weeks than I have seen in three years”.
The opportunity to hold public hearings around improvements to policing efforts is not new or abstract, but is in fact happening across the country right now. While some leaders choose to use other cities in Oklahoma as a benchmark for success, the fact remains that Tulsa is far behind many other places in the nation (including in our own region) at addressing racial disparities in our policing practices.
By voting ‘yes’ on holding public hearings, the council will simply be moving our city in the direction many others have already gone – either by choice or by federal mandate.
These hearings are not an overreach of power, an effort to “belittle the efforts of officers” or a “stunt”, as one city official unfortunately chose to refer to them.
Five unarmed black men have been killed as a result of excessive use of force by law enforcement officials in five high-profile cases in Tulsa in the last five years.
In Tulsa, Black citizens are 2.6 times more likely to be victims of excessive use of force than white citizens. Jeremy Lake, Eric Harris, Terence Crutcher, Joshua Barre and Joshua Harvey all lost their lives as a result of this and other disparities.
Tulsa needs public hearings because our system is broken and people are dying.
We shouldn’t be scared of following the lead of other cities and seeking answers.
We should be scared instead of the consequences of our continued refusal to act.