by Contributing Writer Noelle Janak
In February of this year, Mayor G.T. Bynum announced plans to create an Office of the Independent Monitor (more information about the proposed OIM ordinance can be found here) using the model currently present in Denver. This announcement came on the heels of 77 recommendations given by the Tulsa Commission on Community Policing. One such recommendation was the creation and maintenance of a just and effective oversight mechanism. Since then, community organizations such as The United League for Social Action and Demanding a JUSTulsa implored the city to excavate the findings of the Tulsa Equality Indicators Report. This political pressure resulted in a series of special meetings and listening sessions to do just that. Now we are quickly approaching the policy aspect of this process. How do we make this city more just? There are many perspectives in relation to this question. Currently, City Council is wrestling with how the OIM can become a vehicle that challenges the reality that zip-code, race, gender, ability, and mental health status fundamentally determine life expectancy and quality of life in Tulsa.
As currently written, the ordinance to establish the OIM does not embark on the difficult but necessary work needed to make our city more livable for the most marginalized residents. The so-called “Independent” Monitor is slated to make non-binding recommendations to the Mayor and Chief of Police on “certain investigations.” Without the tools to actually hold police accountable, such as subpoena power, the OIM lacks the ability to actually transform the landscape of Tulsa. The Monitor is to be appointed by the mayor “with the assistance of the Personnel Director, the Office of Human Resources, and other City personnel designated by the Mayor.” Those most affected by the Equality Indicators Report findings are not listed within the ordinance as participants in the selection of the Monitor. This failure to center Black and Brown people within this process of creating an accountability mechanism should be seen as alarming to the citizenry of Tulsa as a whole. The key to making the OIM something of substance that has the power to transform lives is centering those most affected by police brutality and violence. Without that, the OIM could become nothing more than an advisory body that reminds us yet again that Black lives do not matter to law enforcement or to the city of Tulsa.
The current draft of the ordinance to create the OIM requires that the office use information provided by the Tulsa Police Department Internal Affairs’ completed investigations. If we are trying to provide oversight for a group that is, diplomatically speaking, less than trustworthy, is it wise for the OIM to use TPD information to investigate incidents that may have taken place under their watch? That would be akin to a Board of Directors of a company investigating the CEO for wrongdoing only using information provided by the CEO. There is a clear power dynamic and, often-times, affinity between Boards of Directors and CEOs and the likelihood of a CEO blatantly telling on themselves to the investigative body (in this example, the Board of Directors) would seem on first thought to be unlikely. Given this scenario, many would assume that an independent body would conduct their own investigation into the alleged wrongdoing and compile their own evidence. Part of that investigation would be to look at the information given by the CEO. However, if it was truly intended to be an independent and complete investigation of the CEO’s actions, the Board of Directors would not solely use the CEO’s information. Similarly, the OIM ought to have the power to investigate use of force incidents beyond what information TPD may give them. Without this ability, the OIM is expected to take law enforcement at their word, something a truly independent oversight body should not be asked to do.
A necessary part of the OIM is the incorporation of a civilian oversight board. The drafted ordinance dictates that the civilian oversight board (COB) will consist of 11 members, 9 of whom are from each of the City Council districts. While this measure to make sure all citizens are represented within the COB is admirable, the fact remains that not all citizens of Tulsa are impacted by police brutality equally. The Tulsa Equality Indicators Report tells us that mental health, race, class, gender, and documentation status impact one’s proximity to use of force incidents. Why should districts have equal representation for a matter that does not affect them all equally? This verbiage within the drafted ordinance could potentially further prevent oversight and seriously impede holding law enforcement accountable for police misconduct.
We are situated at an important juncture in our city’s history. Tulsa has committed itself to investigating why people experience police use of force and arrest rates dependent on who they are, where they live, and what documents they may or may not have. Now that we are nearing the end of the special meetings and listening sessions, it is incumbent upon City Council and the Mayor to create an OIM with the tools, power, and support needed to change this reality. We must get this right. In order to do that, we need to go back to the drawing board.
Illustration: Patrick Norman