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By Laura Bellis, contributing writer
A small downtown business called the police on a black person. A white person witnessed what played out when the police arrived, was upset by what they saw and wrote about it on Facebook. The Tulsa Police Department (TPD) reached out to the witness and TPD leadership had a private meeting with them to discuss what had happened and review body camera footage.
Throughout the process that witness was never subjected to vitriol, hate speech, trolls, calls to be fired from their job, nor a public rebuke from TPD and the Fraternal Order of Police (FOP). This was in April of 2019. Last Saturday something very similar occurred, but what happened afterward was very different. What happened to Nate Morris lacked all of the grace and compassion this individual received in 2019.
Last Saturday, Nate Morris, a former educator and current community advocate, witnessed a small downtown business call the police on a black person and posted about it on Facebook.
Here is a timeline of what has transpired to date:
- TPD was called when a black woman was asking patrons inside a local bakery for a ride
- Three TPD cars arrived with Live PD, a national reality TV show
- TPD questioned her and drove her home while the cameras, both Live PD and officer body worn cameras were rolling (Live PD never aired the footage)
- Nate posted what he heard and saw on Facebook
- The bakery’s leaders reached out to Nate personally and they sat down for a meeting on Monday
- On Tuesday, TPD issued a statement, to a Facebook audience of over 100,000 people and shared body camera footage from some of the cameras present (it is important to note here that according to TPD policy, body camera footage can be edited and disseminated at the full discretion of the chief of police)
- Wednesday and Thursday, a barrage of individuals, trolls, and an anonymous parody page (City of Tulsa Complaints Department) began relentlessly, personally attacking Nate
- Thursday, as reported by Channel 6 News, the woman police had been called regarding was arrested on suspicion of providing false information to the police during the incident on Saturday
- Friday, the FOP issued a statement calling Nate a liar and demanding that he apologize for assuming the woman was homeless and a victim of racial profiling
Nate has admitted fault in assuming the woman was homeless, acknowledging how his own biases played a role. Her status of being sheltered or unsheltered is not the matter at hand; neither status contributes nor takes away from her inherent value and deserved dignity as a human being.
To achieve the most humane response to a woman presenting with potential mental health issues and seeking support, either the business or TPD should have called the Mental Health Association’s Homeless Outreach & Rapid Response Team. This team, available via a direct line or 2-1-1, would have sent someone with a social work background to provide case management-style support and intervention via a trauma-informed lens.
What happened last Saturday night is not unusual in Tulsa, but that does not mean that it is something to accept and embrace. Instead of more upstream solutions like the Rapid Response Team being there to serve as a bridge to services, the police, an entity downstream of many systemic oppressions and failures, was present and did what they could to help in the moment, while ultimately arresting her later.
What is unusual about what has transpired is the handling of the response by TPD. As an entity with a large platform and immense power, TPD could have used this moment to reach out to Nate and have a critical dialogue with him and the community. Instead, they provided a high profile online clapback, paving the way for the public and the FOP to pile onto one person.
With this path open, the FOP decidedly channeled all of their anger about years of criticism from a broad coalition of community members for over-policing and police brutality and unleashed it upon one person who has committed his life to help people and is making people’s lives better. Instead of attempting to improve working conditions on behalf of their dues-paying members, Mark Secrist, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, decided to publicly shame someone, the exact tactic people take issue with when it comes to Live PD.
Nate has the privilege and inherent safety of walking through the world as a white person, and so do I. The concern about all of this that I share with Nate is about the inequitable impact of over-policing and exploitive reality TV programming on black and brown people, who, all of the data consistently indicates, are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated due to systemic racial bias.
Additionally, rather than aiming time and resources at attacking and attempting to discredit an individual, this moment could have been leveraged to intentionally find proactive solutions so that similar incidents could be mitigated in the future. Business owners in the area have agreed that greater resources, other than law enforcement, should be readily available to support individuals in need. However, this critical conversation is being lost because organizations and entities with positional power have chosen to detract rather than act.
My fear from what has happened to Nate is that these tactics will continue to be deployed to silence people and further marginalize the voices of those most impacted by policing. If speaking out means being personally attacked by those with power, privilege, a national reality TV show accomplice, and a gun, will people be even more afraid? If the precedent set with this response continues, will our city become more divided? One of the six pillars of community policing is “Building Trust & Legitimacy,” how does this build trust?
Laura Bellis is an educator and community organizer. She is a founding member of The United League for Social Action (TULSA), a research and advocacy organization focused on transparency and accountability from law enforcement, and currently serves as chair of the Human Rights Commission of the City of Tulsa.