The case for greater police accountability: The story of Chief Egunwale Amusan

by Staff Writer Deon Griggs

The year was 1996 and the city of Tulsa, OK had just agreed to allow a KKK rally to take place downtown. Groups of predominantly black peaceful protesters displayed their disapproval while a patrol of police officers on horseback were sent to disperse the crowd. During the commotion of police started to quarrel and wrangle the protestors up, a 8-month pregnant woman was beaten, and pinned downed on the cement pavement as one of the policeman’s horses trampled her. Another woman was mercilessly body slammed by police onto the pavement as well. A man named Chief Amusan that was in attendance and rushed to the woman’s aid, fighting the officer off of her. Officers on the scene proceeded to viciously beat him, put him in a chokehold, and emptied an entire bottle of pepper spray in his face in a litany of racial slurs, leaving Amusan desperately gasping for air, mirroring the circumstances surrounding Eric Garner’s murder in the summer of 2014.

Amusan was charged with inciting a riot, aggravated assault, and assault of a police officer. A 3-day trial ensued where, in front of a mostly white jury, the two officers involved in the brutalization of the woman gave false testimony as to what occurred. Judge Russell Hass, choosing to believe the testimony of the officers and giving into the presumed guilt of the defendant, told Amusan’s attorney prior to the jury leaving the room that he was probably going to jail while providing suggestive commentary to the jury. Given the attitude towards Amusan’s presumed guilt and the judge’s lack of interest in asking for any substantial evidence, it was clear that the system was not interested in his innocence. On the third day of the trial, Amusan’s attorney decided to enter in new evidence: a videotape recording vividly showcasing that Amusan’s constitutional rights had indeed been violated and that the officers had provided false testimony under oath. Judge Hass had no choice but to throw out the case stating that “The DA dropped the ball on this one and should’ve never entered the courtroom”. Despite this clear breach of the law by the officers involved, Judge Hass decided that he would not, in fact, hold the police officers accountable for their actions because “they were doing what they were told to do.” Amusan’s six-year-long countersuit against the city sparked relentless retaliation from law enforcement in the form of house raids by officers under false pretenses, frequent visits from bounty hunters, and constant terrorism leaving long lasting scars on Amusan, his partner, and their children.

While the city pushed for a meager financial settlement to avoid any bad press or actual cause for reform, Amusan insisted on a settlement in conjunction with the Black Officers Coalition, who found themselves in a similar suit against the Fraternal Order of Police for a pervasive culture of discrimination within the police force around the same time. Part of the settlement included various policy reforms for the department: implementing a way to make it easier for people to identify officers through ID numbers since their badge numbers didn’t necessarily identify them, a neutral place to file police reports so that people would not be afraid or intimidated during the process, and establishing an external review board for police misconduct. After 6 years of trauma and turmoil, they were pushed to settle for $176,000 and TPD refused to agree to the policy reforms. After this, Amusan understood that despite the pain he and his family had endured at the hands of the system that was supposedly there to protect them, there was still work to be done. He became active in fighting on behalf of a number of social justice issues, including unlawful incarceration and police accountability and donated 40% of his settlement to the Political Prisoners Defense Fund. 

Since the TPD corruption probe in 2010, 48 falsely accused people have been released from prison for being coerced into giving false testimony or having drugs planted on them. Two of the officers in Amusan’s case were indicted in the TPD probe. Tulsa has come a long way in terms of the dialogue around police reform and accountability, but yet has a very long way to go. While it has just begun holding special meetings on police accountability, the meetings have still been filled with double talk and disputes over semantics from some city officials and law enforcement leadership. However, Amusan believes these meetings and hearings are extremely important to attend: “When we say community policing, what do we mean? Do we want the police to come into our community and police us or do we want shared power in the policing of our community?”

Photo credit: Denise Toombs

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