Policing in Tulsa: where are we going?

Tulsa police
Posted at 2:32 PM, Jun 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-11 15:32:23-04

TULSA, Okla. — "Where are we going?" is a question many Tulsa community leaders are asking as they call on their police department to make changes during a time of civil unrest.

Since Tulsa Police Chief Wendell Franklin took his position, he says an important part of his job has been to work with the community to instill change. Three main focuses have been on community policing, mental health training, and including civilians in investigation processes.

“We need our police to protect and serve, and we need our people to be included in that process,” said Rep. Regina Goodwin. "You can first of all implement a real community policing program that’s outlined and goes from the chief down. It’s a philosophy, and then it’s a practice that should be right.”

Goodwin has been at the forefront of the fight for reform, joined by community leaders like Tykebrean Cheshier, who has organized Black Lives Matter rallies over the past few weeks. Neither believe the proper steps have been taken to reach proper reform in the department.

In September 2019, an independent report on Tulsa Police found evidence of racial bias, but no proof pf pervasive racism. The report stemmed from the killing of Terence Crutcher three years before.

Over that time, city leaders say they had taken a close look at policing, especially at community policing, searching for ways to improve.

"Our officers were spending over 90% of their shift in a squad car reacting to calls,” Mayor GT Bynum said.

In response to that issue, Tulsa Police hired 200 new officers to give them time to walk their beats and become part of the community.

“I think we have a far way to go with our police department, but I have a lot of ideas that we can push with Tulsa PD,” Cheshier said.

Chief Franklin says hearing their voices is vitally important.

"We as a police department are trying to police a community together," Chief Franklin said. "Not us the police against them the community, but us working hand-in-hand with each other.”

Community leaders have asked for an overhaul to the way Tulsa handles community policing, consistent with the independent report, which suggested strict reporting requirements on police contact with the public.

Since Chief Franklin took his position February 1, he says he has been working on a top-down, unified reform to community policing, beginning with his own office.

He applauds the work many in the department are already doing to bridge the divide, but says it is now time to all follow one set plan to get officers involved in the community across the city.

"Maybe a gathering or meet-and-greet," Cheshier said. "We also want to do training for mental health assessments.”

Improvements in mental health preparedness are at the forefront of city leaders’ minds after hearing those concerns.

"We all agree that we need a greater presence of mental health workers out in the field, that we solely shouldn’t rely on police officers to handle mental health crises,” Mayor Bynum said.

Interactions between police and civilians are now captured on bodycams that all Tulsa Police officers wear, which Chief Franklin says is an important part of being transparent.

Community leaders are asking for more transparency in internal investigations, along with citizen involvement.

"We need an office of the independent monitor, we need independent investigations so the police are not investigating and policing themselves,” Goodwin said.

The office of the independent monitor is a position that has been debated for nearly a year as many local leaders look to Denver’s system as a potential model.

Tulsa city councilors heard input for weeks in August 2019 from concerned citizens, and the position was suggested in an independent study of racial bias in Tulsa policing. The study suggested "an independent community oversight body with meaningful powers of access, subpoena, investigation and discipline."

"A trained, professional individual that can look at those instances from an outside, independent vantage point, and provide necessary guidance to the city government and to the Tulsa Police Department,” Mayor Bynum envisioned for the role.

Mayor Bynum suggests someone the community can turn to when it comes to reviewing cases, developing policy guidance, and organizing community outreach.

Chief Franklin has proposed his own plan for citizen oversight, which include opportunities for civilians to sit on the department’s discipline review board and use of force review board.

"Those are all opportunities for us to have some civilian person to be there, look at what we’re doing, and be part of what we’re doing,” Chief Franklin said. "Once people actually see what we’re doing, they will say ‘Tulsa’s doing it right. They really scrutinize the work of their police officers and I had no idea they did that’.”

Because Tulsa Police is such a large organization with more than 850 officers, Chief Franklin says the changes will take time.

However, the hit to the local economy caused by the pandemic is not helping the progress.

"Things don’t look good for us from a budget standpoint for the near future, so that complicates a lot of things we’re trying to do in our department,” Chief Franklin said.

Chief Franklin says he is still pursuing those changes, looking to reapply and secure new grants to avoid delaying any initiatives.