Reflections on Four Months of “Debate” on Race, Policing, and the Value of Black Lives

by Contributing Writer Mana Tahaie

Author’s Note: These are my remarks from September 25th’s Tulsa City Council special meeting on racial and gender disparities in adult arrests.

Opening Statement

Good evening Councilors, Mayor Bynum, Chief Jordan, Ms. Doring, and Mr. O’Mellia. Before I begin, I want to acknowledge that we are on occupied land belonging both to the indigenous people who no longer live here due to genocide and to those who were forcibly relocated here. I recognize and pay tribute to the Osage, Chickasaw, Caddo, and Muscogee Creek peoples past and present.

When I graduated from TU, I thought I was going to leave for a more dynamic, progressive city, like most of my peers — many of them people of color, or queer, or from other marginalized identities — had also done. But somewhere along the way, I fell in love with this community. One day, I woke up and wondered what I would do when it wasn’t my home anymore. That was the day I realized that rather than going someplace where things were already happening, I’d rather stay and make something happen here. So even though there are days I feel like Tulsa is trying to shake me off, I’ve been here for 18 years. Some of my most joyful moments have happened in Tulsa, because of Tulsa.

I believe when you love something fiercely, like your children, your city, or your democracy, you love it enough to hold it to its highest potential. As the child of a large immigrant family that worked hard for their citizenship, I don’t take mine for granted. My family didn’t pick the U.S. by accident: it was the values embedded in the American experiment — of democracy, freedom, free speech, dissent, equality, and opportunity — that brought my relatives, fleeing religious tyranny, to these shores. So when my 72-year-old mother, who has lived half her life in this country, asks me how racial inequality can still exist, it’s her sadness and outrage I channel into my activism. What is more American than urging your democracy to live up to its promise?

I’ve been an activist in Tulsa, loving this community into its best version of itself, for more than a decade. The Equality Indicators Report was a milestone in our history, marking the first time Tulsa has acknowledged and openly reckoned with our lingering disparities. I’ve been following these meetings closely and I was glad to be invited to this panel in particular because arrests are the entry point into a structurally unequal criminal justice system. That’s why tonight’s meeting is so important.

Assumptions

In listening to the Council’s dozens of hours of deliberations on policing, I’ve observed many embedded assumptions in the discourse that I think need to be addressed. In many conversations about race, we’re often operating from very different frameworks of understanding, which leads us to draw very different conclusions about the cause of things. Given that the way we diagnose a problem is central to how we prescribe solutions, I think it’s critical to make some of these assumptions — and their results — explicit.

When we assume racist is a noun, as in a person either is or is not a racist, rather than an adjective (describing a behavior, a policy, or an institution), we make it impossible to identify. We have to avoid being called that at all costs. It prevents us from diagnosing the presence of racism, whether historical, unconscious, or structural.

When we consider bias to be a character flaw rather than a cognitive process that lives innately within all of us, we inhibit our ability to address it when it causes harm.

When we assume the police — unlike any other group of individuals — are completely objective and somehow magically free of bias, then we attribute racial disparities to disparate behavior of community members, rather than disparate treatment by law enforcement.

When we conflate the arrest rate with the crime rate, we condemn communities that are profiled to a continuous cycle of over-policing. The reinforcement bias that stems from fishing in the same pond can result in very skewed data that looks an awful lot like some people are simply more criminal than others.

When we believe that people with more power are inherently trustworthy, we believe it’s the flawed perception of community members that must be remedied rather than the attitudes or behaviors of those in power.

When we assume only criminals should fear police, it renders communities who are concerned about over-policing, profiling, and police misconduct irrational instead of justifiably fearful. It opens the door to a slippery slope of increasing surveillance and occupation. It means that the police’s suspicions of people are justified, but the people’s distrust and desire for oversight of the police are unreasonable.

When we universalize our own experiences by assuming others must have the same interactions with law enforcement that we do, we limit our openness to hear others and have empathy for their perspectives.

When we attribute the demographics of any workforce solely to recruitment, we overlook the significance of how culture and policies influence the likelihood of someone entering (or staying in) an institution.

When the community is where we place the root causes of disparities rather than in institutions and systems, we design individual-level solutions to structural problems. Programs and direct services do not fix issues with discriminatory policy and lack of accountability.

Ultimately, every city decides on their philosophy around policing: do we want TPD to serve as peace officers (which is about community building) or as law enforcement (which is ultimately about punishment)?

Interpreting data

My understanding of what we’re tasked with here tonight is to identify the reasons behind two data points: why Black Tulsans are more than twice as likely to be arrested than White Tulsans, and why women in Tulsa are arrested at 1.7 times the national average. So, as an advocate who has spent years interpreting disparity data, a few points:

We can’t responsibly look at any single indicator ahistorically. For example, since Black people have been in the U.S., policies ranging from chattel slavery to Jim Crow to redlining have institutionalized racial inequality and made parity impossible. We continue to see the remnants of these policies in our city’s geography, its life expectancy, the racial wealth gap, and many other areas. Which is to say: there has never been a moment of racial equality in our history. To not take this into account is to have a contextual – and therefore inaccurate – analysis of the single data point. Similarly, women in Oklahoma are incarcerated at the highest rate in the world and it’s not because our women are “meaner.” They face greater adversity, including higher rates of sexism than women in other states.

To say this another way, data shows the outcomes of myriad policies, practices, and cultural norms. Our goal, then, should be to identify the causes of these disparities, whether they’re intentional or otherwise, and mitigate them as much as we can through public policy. In the case of this data, these indicators can mean evidence of bias, higher criminality, or over-policing. We need to identify and name what is happening.

Secondly, knowing the accuracy of the data is critical as well. After looking at two years’ worth of raw arrest data provided by TPD, I noticed that the racial category identification is incomplete. For example, there are nearly as many individuals whose ethnicities are marked “unknown” as those who are marked Hispanic or Non-Hispanic:

This can significantly affect the conclusions we draw about policing disparities among Latinx communities. I hope one outcome of this process is equipping TPD with adequate resources and training to track, measure, and analyze their practices so we can identify the exact areas of growth rather than speculate.

Finally, when looking at data, scholars tell us it’s important to ensure we don’t practice deficit framing — treating communities facing structural barriers as being at fault for the adversity they face — which risks punitive and inaccurate victim-blaming. Again, to analyze this data without a firm understanding of the social and structural context would be inaccurate at best and extremely damaging at worst.

On Mental Illness

We shouldn’t obscure or distract from the discussion on race by pivoting to mental illness, class, or other sources of inequality unless we’re prepared to do so in an intersectional way.

People of color have historically been excluded from, exploited by, and discriminated against in the mental health field. We can’t speak of the impact of mental illness on policing without understanding its racial dimensions. People of color also experience higher rates of trauma due to interpersonal, institutional, and systemic racism. Research shows that police killings of unarmed Black people have a detrimental effect on the mental health of Black people across the entire state. Furthermore, our society frequently pathologizes the response of people of color, especially Black people, when it comes to their experiences of racism by conflating justified anger with violence and labeling them as irrational. So when TPD uses a “decision tree” to determine whether someone experiencing a mental health crisis is arrested or taken to the hospital, it’s important to remember that discretion opens the door to implicit bias. In her book Biased, Stanford psychology professor Dr. Jennifer Eberhardt discusses the Black-crime association, which is likely to be at play when officers determine if someone is worthy of jailing.

The recent experience of a Black friend demonstrated this: my friend was taken to the hospital amidst a severe mental crisis, where they were arrested and taken to the City of Tulsa Jail. During the arrest, they were injured, and while detained, they were denied access to the bathroom and urinated themselves. After release, their crisis continued, but the mobile crisis program COPES would not respond to our repeated calls for help, indicating that TPD had declined to accompany them. According to insiders, TPD leadership directed officers not to respond to any calls about my friend, leaving us with virtually no options to support them. It was a demoralizing and heartbreaking exercise in what happens when people of color experience mental illness in a community with too few services and too much police influence.

On Alternatives to Arrest

The Tulsa Sobering Center is frequently touted as a successful alternative to public intoxication arrests. However, Mental Health Association Oklahoma’s data shows that Black Tulsans are half as likely to be referred to the Center as they are to be arrested, where White Tulsans experience much greater parity:

Among the reasons TPD provided for why people are arrested instead of referred to the Center is that those who are “combative or violent” are not eligible nor are those who have any other charges, including a warrant. The former veers dangerously close to ascribing violent tendencies to Black people and the latter creates a much higher likelihood that Black Tulsans will be arrested given the over-policing they already experience.

On the Financial Burden of Arrests

Any arrest, even those that don’t lead to a conviction, has a severe effect on a person’s life: multi-day jail time often leading to lost wages, lost employment, or children being removed from the home. Jail time also leads to fines and fees, which roll over into “failure to pay” warrants when an individual can’t afford to pay. As a result, even people who have never committed a crime or are only guilty of a municipal violation are subject to jail time.

Due to the racial disparities in arrests, people of color, especially Black people, have significantly higher court debt. According to Oklahoma Policy Institute criminal justice policy analyst Damion Shade, “There is no better geographic proxy for race in many counties and municipalities than court debt. You can literally see the demographic breakdowns of communities by analyzing fines and fees.” Those who qualify for expungement or commutation must first pay off all court debts. Tens of thousands of North Tulsans are eligible for expungement due to HB 1269 alone, but accessing that right is virtually impossible for them given the high levels of court debt concentrated in these neighborhoods.

On Community Policing

I live in a Midtown neighborhood that has a relatively high rate of theft, burglary, and other crimes of opportunity. Yet I can count the number of police cars I’ve seen in my area in the ten years I’ve lived there. Compare that to my friends who live in North Tulsa who can never leave their homes without seeing multiple patrols. Alongside repeated patterns of getting pulled over due to “fitting the description” or broken tail lights, the cumulative effect of this presence is the feeling of living within an occupying force.

This is not community policing. Neither is a handful of community resource officers who may host feel-good events designed to humanize the police in the absence of reciprocal attempts to humanize the community. Community policing is when officers are embedded in, proximate to, and deeply familiar with the communities they’re tasked with protecting. They know the neighborhood kids and their parents. They shop and eat and pray with their community. When something happens, neighbors have an actual relationship with their officers and can contact the right person, rather than calling a faceless person through 911 and hoping for the best.

As Khalil Muhammad, Harvard professor and author of The Condemnation of Blackness, puts it, “White people, by and large, do not know what it is like to be occupied by a police force. They don’t understand it because it is not the type of policing they experience. Because they are treated like individuals, they believe that if I’m not breaking the law, I will never be abused.”

On Oversight

The police department is one of Tulsa’s only – and certainly the most powerful – public institutions without democratic oversight. We need a strong, independent, and transparent accountability body with the power to investigate, subpoena, and monitor TPD. If there is any abuse of power, misconduct, or bias, TPD should be the most vocal advocate for seeking avenues to identify and root them out. If TPD is operating in accordance with its policies and the conduct of its officers is lawful and fair, there should be no fear of oversight. A civilian oversight body would make great strides in building the community’s trust in law enforcement. Without oversight, accountability is unidirectional: TPD enforces the law against civilians, but we aren’t able to hold law enforcement accountable.

The Syllabus

The data presented in the Equality Indicators is complex, so in the interest of helping Tulsans understand the policing data in context, I created the Justice Indicators Syllabus: check it out here.

Videos

All Tulsa City Council meetings are televised, either on TGOV or Facebook or both. The links below go to Facebook videos of all the meetings that took place during the summer Equality Indicators discussions, as well as the release of the Human Rights Watch’s report on policing in Tulsa.

Community Listening Session

Youth Arrests

Use of Force

Representation

Adult Arrests

Human Rights Watch: “Policing, Poverty and Racial Inequality in Tulsa, Oklahoma”