(Editor’s note: This article has been updated with details of the Tulsa Police Department policy on restricted response)
Many of us have heard the familiar phrase “driving while Black,” which refers to law-abiding Black motorists being unfairly treated or brutalized by law enforcement. Yet, rarely do we set our attention on the other side of the coin, the privileges that White motorists enjoy even when they break the law.
Enter Doris Atkins. The north Tulsa resident filed a complaint against officer J.J. Westfall of the Tulsa Police Department on June 16, 2021, outraged over the way the officer handled a traffic incident in which a White driver hit the back of Atkins’ car while having no valid driver’s license.
Body cam footage verifies complaint
The incident took place on June 11, 2021 in north Tulsa near the corner of Pine and MLK around 7:48 p.m. The Black Wall St. Times obtained a copy of the complaint. Nearly a month after we filed a Freedom of Information request, TPD eventually turned over body cam footage from officer J.J. Westfall at the scene.
“This officer was negligent in his duties. I did not appreciate his approach in interacting with me,” Doris Atkins wrote in her complaint filed with TPD.
“Would not provide the insurance name or the policy. And at his discretion allowed a driver who had no insurance to continue on about his way. Treated me like I was the one at fault. And just pulling him to the side is not enough,” Atkins added.
Body cam footage we obtained begins with officer Westfall arriving on the scene where Doris Atkins is parked on the curb of the street while a White driver is parked further ahead. Atkins had called her husband who parked in front of the White driver while they waited for police to arrive.
Atkins tells officer what happened
In the video, Doris Atkins and her husband approach the officer while the White driver, whose name was redacted, tries to get to the officer first, interrupting the Black couple as they attempt to explain what happened.
“No, you need to hear my story,” Atkins tells the officer, who assures her that he would listen. Officer Westfall takes the couple aside while a different officer speaks with the other driver.
“This little dude don’t have a driver’s license,” Atkins tells officer Westfall. “He’s riding on the back of me. I pull over and he still hits me in the back.”
Atkins revealed to the camera a dent on the rear-left side of her car as she explained her attempt to avoid a tailgating driver.
Atkins accuses the other driver of having no license or insurance. The officer responds by asking Atkins for her information.
“Can you get his first?” Atkins asks officer Westfall, who explains that his partner is collecting the White driver’s information.
“They’ve been so rude to me”: White unlicensed driver who hit Black motorist complains
Moments later, officer Westfall approaches the White driver and his uncle, who arrived after the initial traffic incident. The officer learns that the man does indeed have Progressive insurance, but no driver’s license.
After the officers on scene finish allowing the Black couple to collect the White driver’s information, officer Westfall pulls the White driver aside to talk to him.
Roughly 11 minutes into the body cam video, the White driver begins telling the officer that the couple was rude and threatened to fight him, while avoiding the fact that he was the one who hit Atkins’ car while driving illegally.
“They’ve been so rude to me,” the White driver tells the officer, appearing to seek his sympathy. “I had a guy get out and threaten to beat the sh*t out of me just because I hit her car.”
Officer Westfall responds by informing the man he would be allowed to drive home with a warning.
Officer calls Black motorist “emotional”
“So, here’s the deal. We’re not working non-injury accidents right now just ‘cuz we’re restricted response. With that being said you can’t be driving without a driver’s license. So, I’m not writing you a ticket or anything. What happens after you drive away from here, that’s up to you.”
According to Oklahoma law, “No person shall operate a motor vehicle upon the public roads, streets, highways, turnpikes or other public place of this state without having a valid driver license.” Violations for breaking the law include a fine between $50 and $300, along with the possibility of up to 30 days in jail.
Instead of being grateful for officer Westfall declining to ticket him, the White driver continues to complain about the Black couple’s attitude. The officer co-signs his complaints.
“She got real emotional and I’m sure it didn’t help when you had others getting on to you too,” officer Westfall tells the White driver who was at fault.
While the officer did warn the driver that if he catches him driving without a license again he’ll write a ticket, the officer made it clear that Oklahoma Highway Patrol would’ve sent him straight to jail.
According to the TPD manual, “if a citizen calls to have a traffic collision investigated during Traffic Collision Response Restrictions, call takers don’t have to investigate the incident” if certain conditions aren’t met.” Those conditions include fatalities, injuries or drunk driving.
Since none of those conditions occurred in this incident, the officer appears to be simply following policy. It’s unclear then why the officer threatened to be able to write him a ticket if it happens a second time while still under restricted response. It’s also unclear why the officer wouldn’t be able to write a ticket considering they were already on scene asking questions. Representatives for Tulsa Police Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
As officer Westfall returns to the Black couple, a female officer can be heard telling the White driver, “If you’re going to be driving around illegally, you probably should drive super safe.”
Officer Westfall then explains to Doris Atkins that he gave the man a warning.
“So, they don’t even get a ticket even when they’re driving illegally?” Atkins asks.
“If I can’t work the accident I can’t write a ticket,” Officer Westfall responds.
Appearing disheartened, Doris Atkins returned to her car as the other driver freely made his way back home.