Who’s going to police the police? Establishing an OIM is crucial to carrying out meaningful justice in our city

Editorial by Executive Editor Timantha Norman

It seems as if the vast majority of black folks who claim roots in North Tulsa have had some sort of negative experience of one sort or another with the city’s main law enforcement entity. Some of us have been able to muster up the courage to stand in our truth and openly share that pain. However, some of us still struggle with the innate fear and intimidation that comes with being steeped in historical trauma for decades. I would have to shamefully admit to being a part of the latter group.

For most of my life, I lived under the mysterious shadow of the legacy of my namesake, my father’s brother Tim. During the month of February in 1986, my uncle was involved in a robbery that resulted in his untimely death at the hands of the Tulsa Police Department. The details are still quite fuzzy to this day because no one in my family has rarely openly spoken on it. The only time I attempted to gather more information from my father in relation to the incident, before I could utter a second sentence out of my mouth, he looked so visibly upset that I swallowed those words, held them in place there, and decided not to bring it up to him or anyone in my family again. From the little I have gathered from my own research, I found out that he was shot several times in the back and died shortly thereafter. There was no mention of a weapon of any sort, no details related to any sort of struggle, no concrete rationale given in the Tulsa World piece on why his arrest resulted in his demise. I was disturbed by the callous, nonchalant manner in which my uncle’s death was described in this embarrassingly short blurb of an article that had reduced his life to a mere statistic.

However, my family’s experience is not unique or atypical in the slightest. The horrifically large number of documented (and undocumented) instances of police brutaility that have taken place in our city over the decades have sadly become the rule, not the exception. What has also become commonplace is the apathy of white Tulsans and the inaction of our city officials and top-ranking law enforcement officials in the face of flagrant police misconduct and over policing disproportionately perpetrated against African-Americans in this city.

Despite the multiple reports crafted by reputable sources over the past two decades detailing how “African-Americans are four times more likely to be arrested by TPD than whites… about twice as likely to receive a citation from TPD than whites, and… are also twice as likely to receive multiple citations from TPD as whites” (2000 study conducted by Yale Law School professor Ian Ayes), “…African-Americans in the City are about two to four times more likely to have force used against them by a TPD officer than Caucasians and three to five times more likely than all other races combined” (2016 Tulsa World analysis of TPD’s own use-of-force data compiled from 2010-2015), “… that African-Americans were arrested at twice the rate of non-African-Americans [and] further… African-American motorists were also about twice as likely to be ticketed as non-African-American motorists” (2017 Tulsa World report), in addition to the City’s 2018 Equality Indicators report that showcased even more data to confirm that TPD polices Black residents far more harshly and unfairly than any other racial/ethnic group in the city, there still have been no substantial accountability measures put forth to remedy these disparities.

Despite the countless stories of police brutality directed at Black residents of this city, such as an April 2008 incident involving a 16-year-old African-American young man who was questioned by TPD for no just cause while he was walking home and ended up being brutalized by the police so severely “… that it caused a ‘blow-out’ fracture of TME’s eye socket and bleeding from TME’s ear… [and he] continues to suffer from partial losses of both vision and hearing” to this day (Justia law database), a March 2014 incident involving an unarmed African-American man named Deandre Armstrong-Starks who was shot in the back and killed by TPD Sgt. Wollmershauser (who later became a captain not long after his involvement in the shooting death of Starks) after the execution of a search warrant at his home and the inconsistencies in the officer’s account of what took place, and, most recently, the extrajudicial killing of unarmed motorist Terence Crutcher during the fall of 2016 and the subsequent acquittal of TPD Officer Betty Shelby despite insurmountable evidence pointing to devious motivations behind her actions and those of the department after the incident, there still have been no substantial accountability measures put forth to remedy these disparities.

When you have a police chief that says things like “I think you have a portion of the community that is somewhat disenfranchised, and a portion of the community that is not at the same economic level…I think history has proven that we’re going to have more crime problems from that community” when speaking about North Tulsa, it should not be at all surprising when TPD officers continue to police Black people in a highly biased manner. When the mayor of our city continues to choose political expediency over ensuring that all Tulsans are treated fairly and equally by law enforcement, it should come as no surprise then that members of law enforcement that act in an unethical manner continue to feel emboldened by this and see no need to change course. How can any societal system be expected to work in a highly functional way if it is rotten at its core?

We as a community cannot afford to continue to wait for people to just organically “do the right thing”. Our lives and the lives of future generations are literally at stake. Piecemeal reform efforts designed to temporarily pacify the community will no longer suffice. Now is the time to establish an Office of the Independent Monitor to do what city officials and high-ranking law enforcement officials have not been able to do on their own despite multiple opportunities over the last several decades. Only by following in the footsteps of other cities, such as Denver and New Orleans, by establishing an independent police oversight agency to properly investigate and handle police misconduct complaints and use-of-force incidents will law enforcement and the City be able to start rebuilding the community’s trust and ensure that justice is truly being carried out for all residents of this city.

Illustration: Patrick Norman