Published 06/07/2020 | Reading Time 15 min 38 sec
Op-Ed by Laura Bellis, with The United League for Social Action – TULSA
I’m writing all this down to help paint a picture of where we are today when it comes to policing policy in Tulsa (links at the bottom). This is by no means comprehensive. There are people and groups who have worked on this for decades and people with much larger scopes of knowledge (via their work and lived experience) than mine. That said, every inch gained and step forward in police reform has come from ongoing hard work of committed community members who put in their blood, sweat and tears to demanding an end to police brutality, over-policing and racial profiling. We have to end the war waged by the legal system against Black, Latinx and Indigenous communities.
On November 28th, 2016, prior to taking office, Mayor GT Bynum attended an accountability session on policing hosted by The United League for Social Action- TULSA (1), a research and advocacy community coalition formed in 2015 in response to the killing of Eric Harris, at Rudisill Library. During the session, The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing(2) and its Six Pillars of Community Policing came up several times.
Mayor Bynum was honest that he was not well-versed on policing policy but would look into it upon taking office. Once he was in office, he quickly formed a task force on community policing with subcommittees focused on each of the Six Pillars. The members of this task force were handpicked, and there was a strong police and police-adjacent presence. The work and meetings were not public, but on specific Fridays at 1 PM each committee would present their findings and recommendations.
From these presentations the Mayor’s Office released their 77 Recommendations on Community Policing in March 2017. The recommendations were fairly watered-down versions of what was outlined in The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, and were framed largely as suggestions. Within a year the city indicated through the “dashboard”(3) monitoring the implementation of the recommendations that the majority of them were active/completed- despite little evidence nor concrete, sustainable policy change(4). The dashboard has not been updated since February 2019. The mayor has admitted that the recommendations were a “good start,” but that more needs to be done.
As part of this work, the city launched a Citizen Advisory Board and action groups for reach police division in December 2017. Citizens were handpicked to participate. These groups are known to have only met a handful of times without a clear purpose and have not met in at least a year. Advisory boards are a weak, performative version of the Community Oversight Board with subpoena power community members have consistently called for.
One component of the recommendations included the ubiquitous use of body-worn cameras, which were fully implemented according to TPD at the time as of February 2018. Initially, the policy for body-worn cameras was the same as the one for mobile vehicle recording systems, the more specific body-worn camera policy that was eventually put forth leaves a great deal of discretion to the chief of police for what is shared and how footage is edited when shared. Also, the state legislature has worked to limit how long footage is held onto.
The new chief of police, Chief Wendell Franklin has mentioned multiple times that he is working to have more consistent use of body-worn cameras and having them turned on during interactions, implying that this was quite infrequent under Chief Chuck Jordan’s purview. It’s also worth noting that body cameras raise concerns about over-policing via facial recognition technology.
After the city released the Equality Indicators(5) showing significant racial disparities in arrest and use of force data (which a variety of other data further verifies), City Councilor Vanessa Hall-Harper called for public hearings to be held to investigate these inequities in May 2018; due to upcoming elections the other city councilors did not work with her to push this forward. Councilor Hall-Harper brought up the hearings again after inauguration in December 2018. The community began to push and advocate for these public hearings to occur via a campaign led by Demanding a Just Tulsa(6). The community hosted a community-led Public Hearing to model for the city what this could look like in March of 2019.
After several months of consistent work from the community the City Council, while refusing to use their full public hearing power (Councilor Phil Lakin cited how “serious” a public hearing sounded and that they didn’t want anyone to feel like they were on trial), did begin a series of special meetings on the Equality Indicator disparities in June of 2019, holding multi-hour meetings over several months featuring panels of experts, police and community representatives(7).
While those meetings went on, after about two years of extensive research, the global human rights watchdog Human Rights Watch released a report called “Get on the Ground!”: Policing, Poverty, and Racial Inequality in Tulsa, Oklahoma (7) in September of 2019. The report is thorough and includes a great deal of data, community voices and stories, and recommendations. The city and police department largely ignored the scathing report.
Following the series of special meetings, the City Council has spent months occasionally meeting to discuss what next policy steps could look like. Despite having long lists of recommendations from the community, The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing, Human Rights Watch and other national experts, the City Council has not been able to implement, let alone cohesively suggest policies in response to the information gathered in the special meetings.
In seeking a next policy step given the limitations of the 77 Recommendations, Mayor Bynum and several members of the Mayor’s Office visited Denver to learn about Denver’s Office of Independent Monitor (OIM) (9) in January 2019. Denver’s OIM has been heralded as the gold standard in oversight of police, having received the Achievement in Oversight award from the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement in 2016. Upon returning, the Mayor’s Office began next steps to propose a Tulsa OIM.
Tulsa’s Fraternal Order of Police (FOP), a consistent force of strong opposition to reform efforts and denier of disparities clearly conveyed in data, came out quickly against this oversight effort. As the initial OIM proposal made its way from the Mayor’s Office to City Council, the proposal, like many other best practice policy initiatives before it, got watered-down. It went from being a monitor, providing transparency and oversight during an investigation, to being an auditor, seeing the investigation details after the fact, thereby losing nearly every last one of its teeth.
The full initial proposal that arrived at city council was supported and drafted by Councilors Phil Lakin, Crista Patrick, Lori Decter-Wright, Kara Joy Mckee and Vanessa Hall-Harper in coordination with Mayor Bynum and City Legal. When the community voiced that it wasn’t strong enough and had drifted too far from the Denver model, Councilors Hall-Harper and Mckee pulled their support which led to Mayor Bynum pulling it back as it no longer had enough votes to pass.
The city councilors who were extremely unlikely/never going to vote for any variation of the OIM (especially those who accept FOP donations: Connie Dodson, Ben Kimbro and Cass Fahler) still did not like the watered-down version. While, Councilor Patrick (who also accepts FOP donations), Councilor Jeannie Cue and Councilor Lori Decter Wright may have potentially voted yes had it been brought to a vote, without Councilor Mckee’s and Hall-Harper’s votes it would not have passed.
At the end of 2019, Chief Chuck Jordan announced his retirement and the city began a search for a new police chief. The community asked to participate and for it to be a national search. After consistent community advocacy, Mayor Bynum agreed to hold a series of public forums co-hosted by Tulsa Crime Stoppers, a nonprofit led by former City Councilor and FOP friend Karen Gilbert, to gather input on the next police chief.
During the forum at Rudisill Library, the issue of Mayor Bynum having renewed the city’s previously canceled contract with the exploitive reality show LivePD surfaced with the community requesting an end Tulsa’s participation in the show. Mayor Bynum said he would not cancel it, and later insisted that it serves as a good measure of transparency.
A list of candidates was quickly announced in early January 2020, all of them internal to TPD as no national search took place. The community advocated participating in the interview process. The mayor quietly handpicked a committee of people to meet with the candidates, announcing the panelists publicly the night before the meeting. They each had time to ask approximately 1-2 questions of the four finals candidates. All of this was behind closed doors.
A public meeting to hear from the candidates was held at Ellen Ochoa Elementary shortly thereafter, without an opportunity to hear all candidates answer community questions in a cohesive way, as had been requested by the community. Despite concerns being raised about his recorded denial of racism existing in TPD, Wendell Franklin was selected as the new and first-ever Black chief of police of the department.
In February 2020, Vanessa Hall-Harper proposed that the full, robust version of the OIM be put to a vote of the people to decide the matter once and for all. Unfortunately, this did not pass a vote of the council either, with only Hall-Harper, Mckee and Decter-Wright voting to let the citizens of Tulsa decide. Several of those voting no, cited the many calls and emails they received from their constituents against the OIM.
This was a familiar sequence of events. Frequently, countering years of work and the voices of those most impacted by police brutality, the FOP *(with support of their intersecting lobbying group Tulsa Project 912) swoops in at the last minute and organizes a flood of emails and phone calls that give city leaders the convenient excuse: “I heard from so many constituents against this, I have to listen to them.”
Where we are now:
Organizers of the May 30th We Can’t Breathe Protest, all of whom have been fighting for meaningful policy change for at least several years, made four demands:
- Police oversight and accountability (aka the OIM)
- Divestment from enforcement and investment in community mental health and well-being
- Justice for Terence Crutcher, Joshua Barre, Joshua Harvey, Eric Harris and the countless lives lost to the criminal legal system
- End Live PD in Tulsa
The following Monday, June 1st, Mayor GT Bynum, Chief Franklin, and a variety of city officials met with organizers of the protest to discuss the four demands and agreed to the following:
- Pursuing the initiation of the OIM, starting with the weaker version as the FOP contract underpinned by state policy, inhibits robust implementation. However, Mayor Bynum committed to working to renegotiate and if needed arbitrate to strengthen the OIM from there. He agreed to also sit down to map out those strengthening details with the community and two set a meeting within the following two weeks (the meeting has been scheduled).
- Chief Franklin and Deputy Mayor Amy Brown shared that aside from staff time spent supporting mental health initiatives, there is no budget for mental health programming and that over 90% of the budget goes toward staffing. A breakdown of budget (staffing allocation included) was asked for showing enforcement/militarization measures vs proactive and mental health measures – no follow up has happened on that yet. A lot of TPD’s programming and innovation efforts is funded via grants, and therefore subject to federal, academic and philanthropic motivations. The Crisis Response Teams that TPD partners with the Mental Health Association on implementing is active during the day two days a week currently.
- The city having moved to dismiss the Crutcher case, agreed to sit down with the Crutcher family. I am unsure of next steps for other impacted families who have lost loved ones to police brutality.
- The mayor agreed to review the contract and see how/when they can end LivePD in Tulsa and over the ensuing two weeks to develop a nonprofit, noncommercial alternative. I am unsure why social media, body camera footage, utilizing YouTube (something Chief Franklin emphasized seeking to begin utilizing more previously), and the community board and reports that are a core part of the OIM doesn’t cover it and we need a TV show for transparency, but ending LivePD is a win regardless.
Now is time to hold Mayor Bynum and the City Council accountable to these next steps. People need to be ready to research, pay attention to city council committee meetings, call, email, advocate, etc. to ensure sustaining, critical policy change occurs.