Racial disparities in Tulsa’s policing practices have worsened, data shows

by Nate Morris
Racial disparities in Tulsa's policing practices have worsened, data shows
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Data from the City of Tulsa’s Equality Indicator Report shows that racial disparities in the city’s policing practices, including arrests and use-of-force, are getting worse. According to the 2021 report, published in December, disparities based on race have increased since 2018 in three key areas.

In 2018, a Black juvenile was roughly 3.15 times more likely to face arrest compared to their White counterpart. Now, data shows young, Black Tulsans are more than 5 times as likely to be arrested compared to young, White Tulsans.

The 2018 report also showed Black Tulsa adults were twice (2.4 times) as likely to face arrest as White adults. Now, the data indicates they are nearly three times as likely.

This disturbing pattern is also present in data around the use of force. In 2018, data showed Black Tulsans were 5.05 times more likely than Hispanic/Latinx Tulsans to experience use-of-force by police. That number, according to the current report, has jumped to nearly 5.75.

Altered calculation for use of force may not show full scope of disparities

The 2018 report included a breakdown of use of force between Black and White Tulsans by share of the population (per 1,000 people). The data indicated that Black Tulsans were more than twice as likely as White Tulsans to experience use of force.

Since then, following pushback from Tulsa Police Department leadership at the time and the Fraternal Order of Police, the reporting method has changed. The report still shows the breakdown by population between Hispanic/Latinx Tulsans and Black Tulsans, but it no longer includes a similar breakdown between Black and White residents.

Instead, it calculates the disparity in use of force between Black and White Tulsans per 1,000 arrests.

In fact, the 2019 report noted that calculating racial disparities in use of force by arrests rather than by population “can be misleading because it excludes contacts with police that do not result in arrest.”

The note stated that “using population as the denominator more accurately reflects the overall social and public health impact of use of force on the entire community.”

Ultimately, the calculation method changed “because the Tulsa Police Department calculates its use of force rates by using total number of arrests as the denominator.”

Nearly four years since initial report, Tulsans still waiting for policy change

After the first report in 2018, citizens and city leaders seemed to be aligned in the need for substantive reform. Organizations held multiple community-led meetings, while elected officials agreed to host a series of public meetings around racial disparities in policing.

At one point, Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum was advocating for a strong system of community-led policing oversight to enhance trust. That advocacy eventually evaporated after pushback from local police union leaders.

Four years later, few significant reforms to policing policies have been implemented. Hope for change seemed to pick back up after city-wide protests in 2020. However, promises made by city leaders have yet to be fulfilled.

Still, some Tulsa citizens are continuing their advocacy for significant change.

Over the course of the last several months, residents have called on city councilors to support policing reform measures. This includes finally creating an Office of the Independent Monitor (OIM) to provide independent oversight of the police department.

Tulsa residents have asked the council to consider a new amendment to the city’s charter to establish an OIM. Councilors simply need to approve the proposal going to a vote of the people in the August election.

Data shows an OIM could improve policing outcomes in Tulsa.

The idea for an OIM originated from Mayor Bynum following a trip to Denver, Colorado. That city created the civilian oversight agency in 2004 to enhance transparency and trust between the police and citizens.

The OIM allows citizens and department employees to submit complaints directly to the civilian oversight committee. The committee reviews complaints on an individual basis and then determines how to proceed. Each year, the agency publishes a detailed annual report, recapping the complaints made, actions taken and even suggesting new policing reforms.

Over the past twelve years, the number of annual community and internal complaints filed to the OIM against officers has dropped significantly. In 2010, the OIM processed 720 complaints against Denver officers. In 2021, that number was down to 237.

Data from the annual report shows that the number of officers receiving complaints has also decreased. In 2010, nearly 44% of officers received at least one internal or community complaint, with 17.5% receiving two or more. Last year, that number had dropped to just 23%, with just 5% of officers receiving more than one complaint.

By comparison, between 2010 and 2019 (the most recent data available), complaints against Tulsa officers increased nearly 350%.  According to TPD’s annual internal affairs report, the department received 464 internal and citizen complaints in 2019. In 2010, that number was just 133.

Recent retention rates between the two cities are also starkly different. Between 2020 and 2021, Denver Police lost roughly 4.6% of its sworn officers. Tulsa, conversely, lost roughly 10% over the same time period.

It remains to be seen whether councilors will allow Tulsa residents to vote on the establishment of an OIM for the police department. An official vote to put a charter amendment on the ballot will take place at 5pm on Wednesday, March 30.

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